TESCREALism.  Has The Silicon Valley Ruling Class Gone To Crazy Town? Émile Torres in conversation with R.U. Sirius

E= Extropianism
S= Singularitarianism
C = Cosmism
R = Rationalism
EA = Effective Altruism
L = Longtermism

Émile Torres, a philosopher and historian who has focused recently on existential threats, developed what they refer to as a ‘bundle’ (we might call it a memeplex) that claims to link the above series of -isms into a sort-of singular force that has been embraced by many of the super-wealthy and influential in the tech world. It is the influence of these tropes on the super-rich and influential that, in Torres’ view, makes them very dangerous.

In an article for Truthdig, Torres writes, “At the heart of TESCREALism is a ‘techno-utopian’ vision of the future. It anticipates a time when advanced technologies enable humanity to accomplish things like: producing radical abundancereengineering ourselves, becoming immortalcolonizing the universe and creating a sprawling ‘post-human’ civilization among the stars full of trillions and trillions of people. The most straightforward way to realize this utopia is by building superintelligent AGI.”  

In the same piece, Torres gets into the wilder projections that I suspect even many techno-enthusiastic transhumanism-oriented Mindplex readers would find fantastic (rooted in brilliant minds  taking their fantasies for reality),  Torres theorem leans heavily on Oxford Professor Nick Bostrom’s views, writing that he “argues that if there’s a mere 1% chance of 10^52 digital lifetimes existing in the future, then ‘the expected value of reducing existential risk by a mere one billionth of one billionth of one percentage point is worth a hundred billion times as much as a billion human lives.’ In other words, if you mitigate existential risk by this minuscule amount, then you’ve done the moral equivalent of saving billions and billions of existing human lives.” 

As he explained in his conversation with Douglas Rushkoff, Torres identifies TESCREALism as a philosophical ‘bundle’ that, in a sense, trivializes the lives and sufferings of currently existing humans by finding a greater importance in the possibly trillions of posthumans that could exist in physical and/or virtual space in the future — ‘people’ having experiences that can be valued beyond our imagining. Some of those quoted tend to use statistics to value experience, which is about as alienated from experience as you can get.

I can assume you all know about transhumanism and the singularity. If you’re here, you probably know about Ben Goertzel’s project to build AGI. But are most of you familiar with the eccentricities and extremities that have attached themselves to Rationalism (as defined by LessWrong), Effective Altruism and Longtermism?

In the interview below, I mainly ask Torres to thrash out how real all this is. Do a lot of people buy into the whole philosophical bundle? My own attitude, even as a longtime associate of transhumanism, has always been kind of “are you for real?” when it comes to people taking their shit too seriously, particularly when they’ve deluded themselves into thinking they’re rational. 

In a follow up poll, I will ask Mindplex readers and veterans of the transhumanist culture to weigh in on the TESCREAL bundle. 

RU Sirius:  In your book Human Extinction: A History of the Science and Ethics of Annihilation, you went from writing about existential threats as a historical phenomenon to various transhumanist tropes. As I was reading it, it was like suddenly we had gone from science and geology into science fiction. Then I was wondering if there was science fiction in older times. (I suppose there was the Bible and other myths.) How did you get into this? 

Émile Torres:   Back in the mid-2000s, I encountered transhumanism for the first time. And I was initially really critical of it. The second paper I ever published was a critique of transhumanism. But  then, certain considerations led me to believe that transhumanism is a defensible position, and I became a sort of transhumanist.

And one of the main considerations was that the development of these technologies is inevitable. So if you’re going to be against transhumanism, then maybe you need to be against the development of certain person-engineering technologies. But since they’re inevitable, there’s no point in opposing it just to hold back the tide. So the best thing to do is to join the transhumanists and do what you can to ensure that that project is realized in the most optimal way.

The notion of existential risk was tightly bound up with transhumanism from the start: existential risk was initially defined as ‘anything that might prevent us from creating a posthuman civilization’.

RUS:  I’m sure there must have been mention of existential risk before that in various intellectual circles… like related to nuclear war and so forth?

ÉT:  There was definitely talk of extinction and global catastrophe. But what’s new about this idea of existential risk — right there in the definition — is the idea of desirable future development. 

There were people, particularly in the second half of the 20th century, arguing that one reason human extinction would be bad is that it would foreclose the realization of all future progress, future happiness, and so on. But that lost-potential argument was never formalized. The focus was really on going extinct. Everybody on earth is going to die. You and me are going to die. Our families will die. That was the foreground. Lost potential was not prominent. 

The notion of existential risk, I think, flipped that around and foregrounded the lost potential: the argument became that the worst aspect of human extinction is the lost potential. It’s not the 8 billion people who are going to die. That’s very bad, but the badness of all the lost potential is orders of magnitude larger.

RUS:  I may be a bit out of touch with the transhumanist culture… to me this is a bizarre iteration of transhumanism. It’s not something I bumped into much when I was interacting with that world in 2007-2010 as editor of h+ magazine. At that time, you’d mostly hear about life extension and other enhancements. Or immortality, if you wanted to get really far out. The notion of uploaded mind children was around, but as something very speculative. But the idea of sacrificing just about everybody to imaginary future people as you’ve discussed in your writings about TESCREAL did not seem to be much in circulation back then.

ÉT: That sounds right to me. I think this notion of potential is really central to longtermism. The initial definition comes from 2002, with Bostrom discussing the  transition dynamics from our human to a posthuman civilization, foregrounding the potential of becoming posthuman. This was also bound up with this notion that the creation of posthumanity isn’t just valuable because it’s a good way for cosmic history to unfold. But also, you and I might benefit, right?

So why is creating a posthuman civilization important (according to Bostrom and people like him)? Well, because if it happens within my lifetime, maybe I get to live forever. Or even if it happens within maybe a thousand years, I still get to live forever because I’ll sign up with ALCOR and get resurrected. So I really see this moment where there is a  sort of the pivot towards thinking about the far future. I think initially, for the transhumanists, it was bound up with their own fate as individuals. 

RUS: I was thinking that maybe – for example – Eliezer Yudkowsky is being selfless when he talks about risking nuclear war and sacrificing most life on the planet to make sure AI doesn’t happen before he thinks we’re ready. Because it seems to me he could have at least a 50:50 chance of being a victim of the nuclear war that he is willing to risk to prevent the development of AI too soon. So I’m thinking he’s being selfless but he loves the idea of the blissful future humans so much that he’s willing to sacrifice himself.

ÉT: My understanding of the history is that it was really in the 2000s that people in this community became increasingly aware of just how huge the future could be. With that awareness came a corresponding shift in the moral emphasis.

Yudkowsy wants to live forever. On Lex Fridman’s podcast, he said that he grew up believing that he would live forever. And so part of the trauma for him, as he mentioned on that podcast, is being in this situation where AGI is so close, and he’s having to face his own mortality, maybe for the first time. It seems like his thinking exemplifies this pivot throughout the 2000s.

RU: To me it sounds like it’s all fantasy. Some of this stuff that you’ve mentioned being part of this bundle – like the theoretical trillions of people, including digital people, having quantifiably great experience — it sounds like dormroom stoned nerd brainstorms that just never ended. They keep elaborating from the original premise, getting more and more isolated from real-world experiences turn by turn. Ideas used to mature – now they just seem to get crankier. I can’t prove it, but it could be the result of the attention economy. To misquote Neils Bohr, “Your idea is crazy but it’s not crazy enough to get a following on social media.”

ÉT: With respect to the attention economy, my sense is that longtermists recognize that this vision of the future is kind of nuts. I mean, some of them have used the term ‘crazy town’. Consequently, I think they do their best to avoid mentioning what their actual goals are publicly. Crazy ideas do grab the public’s attention, but in this case, I think they feel that some of these ideas are not good PR. 

What About Useful AI?

Credit: Tesfu Assefa

RUS: Regarding your assertion that AI activity can only be explained by this ideological configuration. I don’t know whether you’re talking about practical AI for, say, tracking and responding to weather conditions, developing vaccines and other responses to pandemics, developing medicines, etc. Or if you’re referring only to AI that is performing what we consider intellectual or creative things.

ÉT: I don’t think AI in general is motivated by this ideology. The race to AGI is. And I think there are two factors. One that’s obvious is the profit motive. Microsoft and Google expect to make billions of dollars off of these large language models. But I think the other crucial component of  the explanatory picture is TESCREALism. 

It’s like… why did DeepMind form in the first place? Why did Demis Hassabis – who was at a lot of these transhumanist conferences – found it? And Shane Legg, who received $100,000 from the Canadian Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence after completing his PhD thesis, and gave talks at the Singularity Summit conferences.

RUS: If I went to all the boardrooms in Silicon Valley and talked to the owners and the programmers, do you think most of them would embrace this entire TESCREAL idea? My guess is they would tend to be transhumanists, and quite a few might be singularitarians, but they are probably not into the ‘trillions of future people’ aspect of that project. I mean, how ubiquitous are these ideas really?

ÉT: In terms of the ubiquity of TESCREAL beliefs, I think you’re right. A lot of them wouldn’t even use the word transhumanism. You could ask, “Would you support re-engineering the human organism?” Or ask, “Are you funding projects to try to re-engineer the human organism so we can merge AI into our brains?” I think a lot of them would say yes. And they’d be for aspects of the longtermist worldview like the imperative to colonize space and plunder the cosmos. My strong suspicion is that’s the water that these people swim in.

An article I want to write would be about the different terms and ideas that various authors use to describe the culture of Silicon Valley – using different terms, but ultimately describing the same phenomenon. So what I mean by TESCREALism is the same thing that far-right guy Richard Hanania calls the “tech right.”

There was a Huffington Post article about how he holds white supremacist views. And he said, “I hate the word TESCREALism.” So he called it the ‘tech right’. Douglas Rushkoff calls this ‘the mindset’ – he says it is everywhere in Silicon Valley among tech billionaires and so on; in talking to them about their views, he found that they all thought: “the future is digital. We’re going to upload our minds. We’re going to spread throughout space” and so on. What Rushkoff means by ‘the mindset’ is basically what I mean by TESCREALism. Would these people who embody ‘the mindset’ say, “yeah, I’m a longtermist, and I believe that the most morally important thing to do is to conquer space and create all these digital people in the future?” I don’t know. But their worldview looks a lot like longtermism.

RUS:  Do you think a lack of concern for currently living people is a sort of political manifestation of the longtermist view is driving some of the people of  Silicon Valley towards right-wing extremism?

ÉT: I think that’s largely correct. I think some people, like Wil Macaskill, [a figure in ‘effective altruism’] really accept this very abstract philosophical position that what matters is that there are huge numbers of people in the future. And a lot of tech billionaires see this vision as bound up with their fate as individuals. So the thinking is like… “I want to build a bunker to survive the apocalypse so I can get to space, have my mind digitized” and so on. And that definitely can lead to this disregard for most human beings. A wild example of this is the news that broke that Sam Bankman-Fried’s brother and somebody else at FTX had discussed the possibility of buying the island nation of Nauru explicitly so that members of the ‘effective altruism’ movement could survive an apocalyptic event that  kills up to – as they wrote in the document – 99.9% of human beings.

The Singularity is Probably Not Near

Credit: Tesfu Assefa

RUS: Ben Goertzel said that I should ask you if you think the Singularity will happen. And if it will happen, will it happen in 2035 or 2050?

ÉT: I guess it depends on what one means by the Singularity. There’s the intelligence explosion interpretation… there’s the Kurzweilian idea that just has to do with the rate of change.

RUS: I think of the Singularity as the point where the AIs get smarter than us, and beyond that, you can’t predict anything. You can’t predict who we’ll be, or if we’ll be around, or what the world will be like. The science fiction writer Vernor Vinge was the first person to suggest that idea of a Singularity. We would make intelligences that would become as incomprehensible to us as we are to worms.

ÉT: I’m sympathetic with that view of the Singularity. There’s just not much we can say beyond it. I’m very skeptical of the intelligence explosion idea. And the rate of change idea from Kurzweil seems to be in direct and significant tension with the fact that a climate catastrophe is almost inevitable unless there’s some new technology that, at scale, removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

RUS: Kurzweil shows that the inclining line of human technological development survived two World Wars (actually world wars boosted technology development) and Mao and Pol Pot and all kinds of terrible events.

ÉT: I think climate change is different than that.

RUS: Yeah, I think so too.

ÉT: We’re talking about global civilization. Is it gonna survive? I don’t know. I mean, there are legit climatologists out there who don’t think it will unless there’s immediate action to avert catastrophic climate change.

I remember arguing, many years ago, with colleagues in the existential risk field, where I was claiming that climate change is a much bigger deal than they were suspecting. They thought: “We’ll invent AGI. And once we have AGI, it’ll…”

RUS: It’ll figure out what to do, yeah.

ÉT: Figure out what to do. But how are we gonna create AGI in a world that’s just crumbling and falling apart? How are we gonna host conferences on AI when the weather is so hostile that you can’t get there?

RUS: I guess the question becomes how radical the intervention of weather catastrophes is in the immediate future. People are thinking they might be able to accomplish AGI in the next 10-20 years or so. And we’re already dealing with all kinds of crappy weather and deaths and destruction. But to the visible eye, western civilization seems to roll on. People get in their cars and go to the store. Food is still being distributed.

So we do seem to be carrying on, and maybe we will do that for 10 or 20 years. If the people making the AGI and related robotics and so forth are able to manage to get to the lab and do their work, get in their cars and get enough food etc., then maybe they can  accomplish what they hope to. I guess that’s the idea.

ÉT: It’s just not my area of expertise. But my sense is that, in terms of the LLMs that we have, there’s no obvious path from those systems like ChatGPT to genuine AGI or superintelligence.

RUS: A lot of people are saying that ChatGPT and the like are not much to brag about. Michio Kaku, who generally tends to be a hyper-optimistic tech promoter, called it a glorified tape recorder.

ÉT: I think it was Gary Marcus who was laughing about the rise and fall in prestige, if you will, of ChatGPT. It became a joke line during a Republican debate.

RUS: It happens so fast these days.

ÉT: Yeah. So I don’t think that Singularity is going to happen, probably. And I would put money on it not happening soon, not happening in 2045 like Kurzweil predicts. 

What About the Humane Transhumanists, Singularitarians and AI Enthusiasts?

RUS: Let me ask you about the varying ideologies and ideals within transhumanism and its spin-offs. You’ve mentioned Ben Goertzel — the captain of the ship here at Mindplex — in various places as having a central role in the ‘bundle’ because of his longtime pursuit of AGI. And I know Ben to be a humanist, and more or less a liberal or even better. I know he doesn’t want to exploit or enslave or kill off the current people on earth but wants to try to lift everybody. So I know from experience that there’s a  lot of philosophical variation within transhumanism. 

I can remember when they asked me to create the magazine for humanity+, I had my own assumptions based on earlier experiences with the Extropians. So I confessed to these guys at a meeting, I said,  “I’ve got to tell you right up front that I’m not a libertarian. I’m a leftist with a libertarian streak.”  And one of the guys said “Yeah me too.” And the other guy said “I’m not even sure about the libertarian streak.” 

Generally, around that time – around 2007 – I learned that a lot of the people engaged with that official transhumanist organization thought of themselves as liberals, sort of conventional mainstream liberals. And there’s a lot of variation within that world.  

ÉT: I recognize and affirm that. The notion of TESCREALism is supposed to capture the techno-utopian vision that came out of some of these movements, and to gesture at the worst aspects of that. I think they’re the ones that have become most influential now. So, like the democratic socialist James Hughes — he was somewhat influential. But, compared to someone like Bostrom, his influence is minor. And I absolutely recognize that there are transhumanists who like anti-libertarian. Some of them are Mormons.

RUS: Yeah… the Mormon transhumanists! They’re adorable. I think when you had people like Peter Thiel and Elon Musk attaching themselves to these ideas, they probably became the main attractors to transhumanism or the ideas of human enhancement associated with it. More people who would be attracted to their ideologies have been  pulled in, particularly in the Silicon Valley culture. These ruling class scary monsters and super creeps became sort of the main widely-available public voice for those kinds of views. Then you had the neoreactionary movement and the dark enlightenment. Most of the people talking about those tended to embrace transhumanist tropes. That became the alt-right; it fed into the spread of right wing extremism.

You can see how the idea of the glorious future – stand up straight and tall and shoot yourself up into the glorious future – could attract a certain type of fascist sensibility.

ÉT: That’s my impression also. Obviously there’s a fascinating history involving futurism and fascism. Maybe it does tend to attract a certain type of person or lends itself to being interpreted or exploited by fascists. TESCREALism captures that aspect.

Is Less Wrong A Cult?

RUS: I remember being at a Singularity Conference and being approached by someone involved in Less Wrong. And it felt something like being approached by a cult. I wonder if you run into any actual cult-like behavior in your studies, like people gathering in communities and getting guns to defend themselves, or worship the leader and that sort of thing.

ÉT: There’s definitely that charismatic leader aspect to rationalism. There are these Less Wrong posts that are just lavishing praise on Yudkowsky. I remember seeing a list of one or two sentence statements about Yudkowsky. One of them was something about how “inside Eliezer Yudkowsky’s pineal gland is not an immortal soul, but another brain.” “In the history of Western thinkers, there was Plato, Immanuel Kant, Eliezer Yudkowsky.”
Someone who I won’t name told me that the Bay Area rational scene is a full-grown apocalypse cult. 

I think EA (Effective Altruism) is sort of a cult. There was an article published by Carla Cremer recently. She talked about a secret competitive ranking system in which participants get points subtracted if they have IQs of less than 120.

RUS: Oh! I was thinking I might ask people engaged in transhumanism if they even believe in IQ as a legitimate measurement of intelligence. 

ÉT: I’d be really curious to know. Because I do think that IQ realism is pretty widespread within this community. Bostrom has written that IQ is good but imperfect. So they sort of lean towards IQ realism.

Does Anyone Call Themselves a TESCREAList?

RU: You noted that Marc Andreessen has identified himself with this bundle that you co-created. Have others directly embraced the term as a positive identity that you’re aware of?

ÉT: No, not really. Hanania acknowledges it in arguing that the ‘tech right’ is
a better term. He said we were basically right about what the streams are, what the bundle is, but ‘tech right’ is a better term. I’m not surprised that there aren’t more people coming out and saying they identify as TESCREAL.

RUS: Maybe after this runs on Mindplex there’ll be a bunch of people deciding that is who they are. Oh dear. Whatever have we wrought?


Credit: Tesfu Assefa

RUS: Let me try a thorny issue: eugenics. What about intervening at the germline to prevent horrific diseases and stuff like that? Do you think there can be a legitimate use for that sort of thing?

ÉT: Yes. I do think that could be permissible under certain circumstances. I mean, I have worries about the limits of what that technology will be used for. Will it be used just for what we would intuitively call therapeutic purposes? My main concern is that it could easily open the door to an ‘enhancement’ approach. As soon as you’re talking about enhancements, there are questions like, “What criteria are you using to judge whether some modification is better?” That’s where you get into the issue of ‘super-classes’ which Bostrom has written about. 

A lot of that is probably ableist. What ‘enhancing’ means for somebody like Bostrom might be completely different than what I might mean. Right?

RUS:  I must confess I had a knee-jerk reaction the first time I heard the term ableism. People should be able. Generally, we should be in favor of abilities and not get into a place where people are worshiping their broken parts, so to speak. At the same time, people should have the right to choose how they want to be. But I’m uncomfortable with the idea that people would want to maintain what most people would consider a kind of brokenness. And I wonder: where’s the line for that?

ÉT: My sense is that words like ‘broken’ are normative terms. I think disability rights activists or disability scholars have a point when they say, “there’s an infinite number of things that I can’t do.” I can’t fly. The notion of disability, some would argue, is just a social construct. We live in a society that is unaccommodating for somebody who can’t do something that a statistical majority of other people can do. That’s what a ‘disability’ is. So maybe, you fix society, the disability goes away even if the inability remains.

RUS: How would you think about physical problems that make life more difficult for an individual, or for the people around them? 

ÉT: There are two aspects to that. One is the inability and the other is the society one lives in. So you can fix or eliminate disability by improving society. And then there’s a good argument that a lot of the inabilities that we classify as disabilities would not be seen as bad. It’s just different. There are people of different heights. There are people who can’t walk. I find my heart is filled with a lot of empathy for the disability scholars — some of whom are disabled themselves — arguing that they wouldn’t want to change. And their view that we shouldn’t aim for a world in which people like them no longer exist.

Techno Gloom

RUS: Do we need to worry about extreme forms of tech negativism? For example, the person who can’t walk on their own will rely on good technology to get around
and probably hope for even better technology. And there’s a real move towards extreme tech negativism now, clearly provoked partly by the sort of TESCREAList people that you’re bringing to the surface. I wonder if you’re a little worried that there might be an overreaction, a tech reactionary kind of move that is actually harmful?

ÉT: Not so much because I haven’t seen a lot of evidence, at least like my social media feed.

RUS: You don’t live near San Francisco…

ÉT: To put it simplistically, a lot of the people in my circle are for good technology,  not bad technology. Maybe small-scale technologies, which doesn’t mean low-tech. So you can have advanced technologies that would enable somebody to get around who can’t walk. But without the megacorps, and all the control  and all the risk that comes with that.

Let us know your thoughts! Sign up for a Mindplex account now, join our Telegram, or follow us on Twitter

The Singularity Obsessed AI Hacker in Antero Alli’s Last Film Blue Fire is Only The Beginning

I suppose the way to get Mindplexians interested in Antero Alli – author, theater producer, experiential workshop leader and film director – is through his ties to Timothy Leary and Robert Anton Wilson starting back in the 1980s, where that pair were advocating transhumanist slogans like Space Migration, Intelligence Increase, Life Extension.

But the reality is that Alli has carved his own path as a writer, a thinker and director. And as he slowly exits corporeality, it’s his film oeuvre that most fascinates me.  

I recently spent a day watching several of his films and it struck me that I was looking at part of  an entire body of work that has been largely neglected by those writing about and advocating for indie films. Alli’s films may be about to be discovered. They certainly deserve substantial notice. There are hours of enjoyment and intrigue awaiting viewers.

And while enough of his films enclose neo-tech tropes like VR and AI to cause one or two commentators to toss out the buzzword “cyberpunk,” these are all ultimately human stories leaning on depth psychology, Jungian symbolism, dreams and real experience.

In the preview for his latest film (and most likely his last) ‘Blue Fire’, Alli highlights the Singularity.

The central protagonist is an underground singularity-obsessed AI hacker. Scenes show male computer-freak social awkwardness, unrequited male obsession with a woman and a bad Salvia Divinorum trip (been there). Ultimately ‘Blue Fire’ is not a film about AI or the personalities of underground hacker archetypes. It’s a film about human connections — connections made but mostly connections missed.

I interviewed Antero Alli by email.

R.U. Sirius: Since Mindplex readers probably aren’t familiar with your work, what would you say is the theme or project or search that runs through all of your work that includes books, theater, experiential workshops and film, including the most recent one we’re discussing today?

Antero Alli: The silver thread running through most everything I’ve put out to the public since 1975 – my books, films, theatre works, Paratheatrical experiments – reflects my ongoing fascination with how our diurnal earth-based realities are impacted in meaningful ways by our nocturnal dreams and related astral or out-of-body events. I have felt compelled to share these visions through the Art of words, images, and human relations. All this obsession started back in 1975 when I endured a spontaneous out-of-body experience at the age of 23. I say endured since the experience itself was traumatic and a massive shock to my concept of identity. I was no longer able, in all honesty, to identify as a physical body after being shown more truth when seeing and knowing myself as a light body, an electric body, cased within the physical body. No drugs were involved. The only condition I can relate it to was exhaustion from an intense theatre rehearsal that evening. All my films are oneiric docufictions, where real life experiences are camouflaged and spun by my feral poetic imagination.

Credit: Antero Alli

RUS: We met when we were both working and playing with the ideas of Timothy Leary and Robert Anton Wilson. To the extent that their ideas are likely of interest to the mostly technophile readers of Mindplex, they would be attracted to the technotopian ideas they advocated like SMI²LE and evolutionary brain circuits as opened by drugs and technology, and then Leary’s later advocacy of cyberpunk and the digital revolution. How do you see your own work in relationship to these tropes?

AA: My contribution to the legacies of Timothy Leary and Robert Anton Wilson is demonstrated through my thirty-year era of working with The Eight-Circuit Brain model. This started in 1985 with the publication of my first 8-circuit book, ‘Angel Tech’, updated and expanded in 2009 with ‘The Eight Circuit Brain: Navigational Strategies for the Energetic Body’. (Both books are still in print at The Original Falcon Press.) My approach is somatic and experience-oriented, rather than theoretical or philosophical. I relate the eight-circuit model as a diagnostic tool to track and identify multiple states of consciousness and eight functions of intelligence that can be accessed as direct experience through ritual, meditation, and trigger tasks. This embodiment bias sets my circuit work apart from Leary’s more theoretical approach and Wilson’s use of multiple systems theory to expand the eight-circuit playing field. Between the three of us, I think we cover the bases pretty well.

RUS: The dramatic persona in Blue Fire is an underground AI hacker… seemingly a singularitarian. How did you conceive of this character? Was he based on someone or a composite or a pure imagining?

AA: The AI-coder Sam, played by Bryan Smith, was inspired in part by the actor — a singular personality with a dynamic physical sensibility and this very pure kind of cerebral charisma, a complexity that I felt could brilliantly serve the film. I was also intrigued and inspired by the subculture of coders that I discovered talking with a few of my friends, AI freaks and serious hackers, who shall remain anonymous.

RUS: Without giving up too much of the plot, the other protagonists are a relatively normal nice seemingly-liberal couple. The dynamic between could be read as a contrast between neurotypicals and neuro-atypicals, In this case the atypical doesn’t do very well but is perhaps a catalyst for putting the typicals through some changes. Would you read it that way?

AA: The so-called typical couple are not lovers or married or in any kind of romantic involvement; nowhere in their dialogue mentions or indicates that. What is clear is that she is a student in the college-level Psychology 101 that he teaches. They form a bond over their shared interest in dreams, a bond that deepens into a troubling mentorship. All three characters act as catalysts for each other in different ways. Much of this starts in their nocturnal dreams and how their daily discourse is impacted by these dreams. This daytime-dreamtime continuum continues as a thread throughout most of my films.

RUS: Again, not giving up too much, the hacker dude smokes some salvia divinorum… and based on my own experiences, you got that right in the sense that it’s often an uncomfortable high. I’ve referred to it as “naggy”. People who want to be happy about being in disembodied cyberspace should probably make ketamine their drug of choice (I’m just chattering here but welcome you chattering back) or even LSD rather than a plant. McKenna used to believe that with plant psychedelics there’s someone or something in there… kind of another mind with something to impart to the imbiber. Any thoughts on this or thoughts on minds other than our own here on earth and what they can teach us?

AA: I knew Sam, the A.I. coder, had a drug habit, but didn’t know at first what drug would be the most indicative of this native state in mind. What drug would he gravitate towards? What drug amplifies his compartmentalizing, highly abstract, and dissociative mindset? After smoking salvia several times, it seemed like a good fit (not for me but for Sam). By the way, I don’t make my films to school the audience or teach them anything. It would be a mistake to also view any of the characters in my films as role models, unless your Ego Ideal includes flaws, shortcomings, and repressed Shadow material. Though ‘Blue Fire’ revolves around Sam’s AI coding, this is also not a story about AI but how AI acts on Sam’s psyche. Like my other films, I explore human stories planted in extreme circumstances or situations where people face and react to realities beyond their control or comprehension.

RUS: Aside from AI, virtual reality pops up in some of your work, and the language of hacking occurs here and there. But I don’t think your work would be categorized as cyberpunk or even sci-fi. What role would you say fringe tech and science play in your films?

AA: The fringes of tech and science play a role in those films – their presence amplifies the human story or shows the viewer a new context or way of seeing how the characters interact with tech and science. This keeps me and my films honest, as I’m no techie or science nerd. My deep background in theatre and ritual (Paratheatre) has slam-dunked me into the deeper subtext of human relations and how this interacts with the transpersonal realms of archetypes and dreams.

RUS: I’m feeling a little claustrophobic making what I suspect might be your last or one of your last interviews just about Blue Fire as directed at the Mindplex audience. If you’re up to it, why don’t you hit the world with your parting shot, so to speak. A coda? A blast of wisdom? A great fuck-all? A kiss goodbye? Whatever you feel. And thanks for being you.

AA: I’m feeling a bit claustrophobic about answering your question. I get that others sometimes think of me as this fount of wisdom – which humors me to no end. I suppose whatever ‘wisdom’ has been born in me, it’s come from making many mistakes and errors of judgment that I have felt compelled to correct as soon as possible, if only because I hate the dumbdown feeling of making the same mistake more than once. This self-correction process vanquished any existing fear of making mistakes, in lieu of an excitement for making new mistakes – defining my creative approach to most everything I do as experimental. Everything starts out as an experiment to test the validity of whatever idea, plan, or theory I start with. Sometimes I’m the boss and sometimes the situation is the boss.

No fuck alls, no kisses goodbye, no regrets. I remain eternally grateful to have lived an uncommonly fulfilling life by following and realizing my dreams. At 70, this has proven a great payoff during my personal end times (I was diagnosed with a terminal disease and don’t know my departure date).

BLUE FIRE Official site


Antero Alli Films online


9/21 Portland premiere

Purchase Advance Tickets

Sept. 22 – YouTube Premiere

Sept. 26 – New York Premiere

Let us know your thoughts! Sign up for a Mindplex account now, join our Telegram, or follow us on Twitter

Steal This Singularity Part 2: The More Things Change, The More You’ll Need To Save

Steal This Singularity Annotated #2

Four score or make that four columns ago, I presented Part 1 of Steal This Singularity Annotated, promising: “Every fourth one of these Mindplex articles will be an annotated and edited excerpt from my multipart piece titled Steal This Singularity, originally written some time in 2008. This will continue until I get to the end of the piece or the Singularity comes. Annotation is in gray italics.”

As it turns out, this second presentation will just about cover it. I’m so happy with how I critiqued (made fun of?) my transhumanist and singularitarian friends that I may not need to do a lot of annotating.

Part Three: The More Things Change, The More You’ll Need To Save

It was 2008 — maybe a week or two into my first experience working with ‘official’ transhumanism (as if) as editor of h+ magazine. I was being driven down from Marin County to San Jose to listen to a talk by a scientist long associated with various transhumanoid obsessions, among them nanotechnology, encryption and cryonics. As we made the two-hour trip, the conversation drifted to notions of an evolved humanity, a different sort of species — maybe corporeal, maybe disembodied, but decidedly post-Darwinian, and in control of its instincts. I suggested that a gloomy aspect of these projections was that sex would likely disappear, since those desires and pleasures arose from more primitive aspects of the human psyche. My driver told me that he didn’t like sex because it was a distraction, a waste of brain power… not to mention sloppy. As a boomer who was obsessed with sex most of my life, as I’ve hit my seventies, I’ve had the peculiar experience of completely forgetting about sex for days at a time. Nonetheless, as a matter of principle, I still believe that repressed sexual energy is a giant badness. It’s essential to my distaste for right-wing fundamentalist Christians, the Taliban and the like.

Putting aside my personal experience, which has caused me to view my earlier life’s priorities with a certain note of bewilderment, I must confess to a curiosity regarding the reports that young people today are far less interested in sex. Is it a loss of male testosterone so much worried about by right-wing talking heads? Is it an evolutionary mutation? Was the driver I thought I was making fun of in the above comments on to something? Is the oncoming climate apocalypse perhaps rearranging some instincts? (Can I suggest that instincts exist? And do I dare to eat a peach? And can I find a classy way to exit this subject?)

I arrived at a Pizza Hut in an obscure part of San Jose. This gathering of about 15–20 transhumanoids would take place over cheap pizza in the back room that was reserved for the event. There was even a projector and a screen.The speaker — a pear shaped fellow clad in dress pants held up by a belt pulled up above his stomach — started his rap. I have a funny memory of a couple of MONDO 2000 staffers going to an extropian gathering at the end of the ‘80s. Jas Morgan and Morgan Russell (both of whom had a certain dandyish élan) and were accustomed to the classy party extravagances dished up by Queen Mu at the MONDO house, complete with her homemade desserts returned with noses upturned. The party was in a dicey little under-decorated house in one of the Bay Area’s strip mall suburbs with chips and dip and Coca-Cola. It was noted that the attendees looked like they didn’t pay much attention to their misshapen bodies nor did they seem to have any sort of fundamental aesthetic for making life extraordinary. They wondered at the Extropians’ desire for more of that life – and suggested that maybe quality rather than quantity should be considered.  Now, I’m not sure how I should think about this. I’ve been thinking hard about why people outside urban areas were attracted to Donald Trump. I think it’s partly because they could sense and identify with his resentment of the culture-makers of New York City. He wanted to fit in but they considered him tacky and lacking class. Yes, class. Do liberals and even many leftists have class? And what does that say?

Somehow related, there’s this funny and interesting piece by Sam Kriss, in which he textually executes all hipsters before obsoleting nerd culture. Let me say this right out loud: MONDO 2000/1990s cyberculture was hipster-nerd back when hipster wasn’t yet a swear word. Now we’re just washed up on the shoreline of cultural desolation with few identity life rafts to relate to, and mere survival rearing its jeering head. We’ll see fire and we’ll see rain.

As I recall, he predicted major nanotechnology breakthroughs (real nanotechnology i.e. molecular machines capable of making copies of themselves and making just about anything that nature allows extremely cheaply) within our extended lifetimes, allowing us, among other things, to stay healthy indefinitely and finally migrate into space.

I recall him presenting a scenario in which all of us — or many of us — could own some pretty prime real estate; that is, chunks of this galaxy, at the very least that we could populate with our very own advanced progeny (mind children, perhaps.) I’m a bit sketchy on the details from so long ago, but it was a very far out vision of us united with advanced intelligences many times greater than our own either never dying or arising from the frozen dead and, yes, each one getting this gigantic chunk of space real estate to populate. (That these unlivable areas can be made livable either by changing it or ourselves or both with technology is the assumption here.)

Once the speaker had laid out the amazing future as scientifically plausible, he confessed that he was mainly there to make a pitch. Alcor — the cryonics company that he was involved in — needed more customers. As he delineated how inexpensively one could buy an insurance policy to be frozen for an eventual return performance, he began to emphasize the importance of a person in cryonics not being considered legally dead… because that person could then build interest on a savings account or otherwise have his or her value increase in a stock market that was — by all nanocalculations — destined to explode into unthinkable numbers (a bigger boom).

For the bulk of his talk, the speaker dwelt on the importance of returning decades or maybe even a century or so hence to a handsome bank account. It was one of those “I can’t emphasize this enough” sort of talks that parents used to give to their 20-something kids about 401ks. 

As the floor opened up to audience participation, the questions continued to dwell primarily upon the financial aspects of suspension and its aftermath. Insurance. Savings. Investments. Finally, a woman raised her hand and asked something along the lines of… “In light of all the stuff you’re predicting, will US currency still be meaningful in that future?”

An audible groan went up from a portion of the gathering, implying, “fuckin’ stupid hippie asking that ridiculous question again.”

So there they were accepting…

•  Raising people from the dead

•  Becoming more or less immortal

•  Making intelligences many times more powerful and capable than our own

•  Individual earth humans privately owning big chunks of the galaxy

…but they could not imagine that the local (local in time, perhaps, more that space) currency and the nuances of its valuation and growth would be irrelevant in that envisioned world. Given that transhumanists are among those pushing forward cryptocurrencies, I find it curious that our speaker didn’t consider the likelihood of some extreme discontinuity in currency, rendering those savings and investments meaningless. Transhumanist culture – before and after the 2008 financial collapse – has a trust in finance management to glue obsoleting accounts to futuristic ones. Late-stage capitalism isn’t late-stage at all. Its coming death has been greatly exaggerated. It’s unbreakable: the capital you possess now will somehow transfer seamlessly into whatever system is collaboratively summoned by or with our smart machines. 

This, it seemed to me, represented a stunning and peculiar kind of stasis sitting at the heart of radical technological change or the imaginings of same, a clinging to the most trivial and boring sort of continuity by the very sort of people predicting extreme “disruption” and radical discontinuity. The Singularity then, if any, would present before us as an unthinkably complex quantum accountant, as — figuratively speaking — a godlike 1950s bespectacled nebbish, a bean counter (literalized already by the fashion for “quantified life.”)

Part 4: The Worm Earns (Or It Can Fuck Off and Die)

Cut to a Singularity Summit that same year, also down in the sainted city of San Jose. During one of the talks, the speaker, Marshall Brain, at that time the host of the TV Show Factory Floor and author of Robotic Nation spoke about the exponential acceleration of robot technology that the conference was, in its essence, about. He noted that the degree of automation that was soon to arrive would lead to such a loss of jobs that it would be necessary to start providing people with a guaranteed income.

This time, it wasn’t a slight groan that arose from the gathered transhumanoids. There was actual hissing from a substantial segment of the audience. It was the first and only time I ever heard this kind of response at one of these gatherings.

(Transhumanoids tend to pride themselves on a Spock-like calm logic. They are not rowdy sorts.) Guaranteed income has gained popularity since. Possibly the situation is reaching the point where you either have to kill the poor or hand out some free tickets; or Andrew Yang’s presidential campaign charmed the pants off of a few hardline libertarians or perhaps, upon noting a rise in working class union militancy, some anarcho-capitalists are thinking they’d better throw the dog a bone.

Again, allow me to contextualize. Here we were at a conference about the Technological Singularity — the time upcoming soon, according to most singularitarians, when we would design intelligences that — in the words of original singularitarian Vernor Vinge — would be to our intelligence as we are to the worms. Nonbiological life would be more competent than us in every way imaginable. And, in fact, even stopping short of the singularity, we were hearing from a whole bunch of speakers about the rise of machines doing more with less better than us in nearly every field of endeavor. And yet, here again, the Infallible Papacy of Contemporary Currency raised its head, angrily this time — with the emotional/ideological undertow undoubtedly ranging from the Randian/libertarian virtues of being financially “self-made” combined with the immorality of assisting anyone not so self-made as one’s self…. to the Calvinist idea of the ennobling nature of work.

That the very same people that can applaud building intelligences that make them about as interesting and useful as a worm can get their knickers into a twist over the idea of humans not having to “earn” tickets to live is indicative of a Calvinist/Randian determination to punish “slackers” even in the face of an endlessly self-replicating, robot-delivered “free lunch.”

Incidentally, during a lunch break following Brain’s talk, I was explaining to a friend why the audience had hissed at Brain when a large, heavy-set man standing behind me on line turned beet red and started shouting at me about how many people were killed by the Chinese communists and how capitalism had defeated communism because planned economies don’t work. I didn’t engage with him, but I would now point out that the nation states and their economies that outlasted Marx-Leninism were the United States, which had a New Deal mid-20th Century, and the European “welfare states” that this beet red fellow no doubt refers to as “socialistic.” A lot of Republican-influenced persons have been convinced in recent years (by people who know better) that centrist Democrats like President Biden are communists. The term is bandied about virtually without context by politicians that are also appealing to these same people with populist anti-corporate and, in some sense, anticapitalist rhetoric. I suppose this goes back to Mussolini. Nothing new here.

Indeed, what Brain was suggesting was not collective farms, totalistic planned economies and the eventual end of all private property, but merely a logical extension of the “welfare state” in response to the conditions predicted (and already starting to occur) by technophile futurists.

Or maybe not even that. During the ’70s, many libertarians, even Ayn Rand quasi-acolyte Milton Freidman, suggested less bureaucratic paths to guaranteed income, once workers were replaced by machines. So, in concrete terms, the barbarism that doesn’t want to resolve superfluous labor and other forms of exclusion from the economy may be more a function of the psychological acceptance of post-Reagan/Thatcher conditions than it is of Randian ideology. (People younger than myself have grown up stepping over the homeless on their way to whatever for their entire lives. The scale of homelessness that continues to exist is a post-Reagan phenomenon).

Part 5: There’ll Be Pie in the Sky When You Don’t Die

Credit: Tesfu Assefa

The conservative or apolitical transhumanist/singularitarian argument against the Steal This Singularity approach is, fundamentally, that it’s unnecessary. The tech will produce democratized abundance and liberties beyond our wildest imaginings and all we need to do is hang on tight and support science and technology and, generally, not stir too much shit up. I call this the “there’ll be pie in the sky when you don’t die” argument, which is a play off of a Woody Guthrie satire, which is, in turn, about 40 times more obscure to young 21st Century Americans than even an Abbie Hoffman reference. A lot has changed since I wrote this in 2008. Not only are a lot of younger people fairly radicalized leftists, a pretty strong sense of history is emerging among some (fostering bizarre reactions in the wilds of Florida and elsewhere). Also, within this milieu, tech negativity has gone a bit too wild. (I must follow up on this theme soon.) GenXers and older millennials really just want to go back in time to before the internet existed.

Basically, the narrative goes that we’re going from home/desktop media, which gave all of us the equivalent of a printing press and broadcast studio from which to have a voice in the world to 3D home printing i.e. manufacturing. If we get molecular technology and tie that in with 3D manufacturing, every man and woman can make what they need from very little in their homes. Of course, that assumes homes, but that’s one brief example of a path to democratized abundance that seemingly doesn’t require any political activism.

Of course, the past and the present are prologue, even in consideration of technologies as disruptive as those being promoted and predicted by transhumanoids and singularitarians. Such was my point in Part Three of this mess about folks clinging to today’s currency as a life raft while sailing about the entire galaxy visiting other property owners. We have both the willingness and the talent to snatch scarcity out of the jaws of abundance and oppression out of the jaws of liberation. We do it today when we impose austerity based on the abstraction of global debt and when we let the US-based National Security Industrial Complex build one-way transparency by using the same now-completed Virtual Panopticon to shield itself from investigation while having full access to everybody else’s data.

Since the dawn of the digital culture, there has been a tug of war between the notion of

•  Free — stuff that can be easily copied and shared should be shared, because otherwise you create scarcity in the face of nearly limitless (virtual) wealth

•  Business — the systemic legacy of selling intellectual and creative stuff, starting companies that lock replicable bits behind turnstiles and make a business of it. Bill Gates took the side against free and did very well by it.

As much protested by the likes of Jaron Lanier, creative artists and writers are now stuck in the middle of this inconclusive dialectic.

During the early 1990s, digital countercultural idealists trumpeted the idea of free. There was a broad feeling amongst those of us at play in the fields of the arising tech revolution that if the anarchic shockwaves of shifting social relations brought about by — among other things — the digitization of cultural stuff and the resultant ease with which that stuff could be copied unto infinity and accessed from anywhere hit us, then we would happily surf those crazy waves of change.

The other part of that deal, as many of us perceived it, was that everything else had to change too. We knew that the end of scarcity in the digital realm would be “heightening the contradictions” (as they say) in the industrial capitalist model. We assumed that either capitalism would rise to the challenge by finding ways to support those disintermediated or displaced by technical change — or it would be forcibly altered or dissipated in the forward rush of boundary defying technologies.

Rather, we’ve been subjected to that same stasis — stuck in these same primitive currency valuations and their correspondent debts — and we stand today as perfect examples of what could not only continue but expand under the regimen of home manufacturing — that is, the utter disintermediation and abandonment of formerly wage earning (and eventually, business-making) people for the crime of not being able to come up with a sublime enough hustle in the midst of satiated needs to get some other human being to pass those currency tickets that legitimize his or her existence to hir.

We shall see. As a famous poet once said (I’m paraphrasing): First they disintermediated the livelihood of the musicians, and I did not speak out for I wasn’t a musician. Then they disintermediated the livelihood of the writers, and I did nothing for I wasn’t a writer. Then they automated the programmers, and suddenly a whole lot of libertarians decided that guaranteed income was a thing. Not bad guesses for 2008.

Part 6: White Babbits  (2008)

Yes I did top the whole thing off with some song  lyrics. They are now a song and a video.

One pill makes you smarter
And one pill makes you small
And the ones that mother gives you
Ritalin or adderall
And your phallus
Needs Viagra after all

And if you go fleecing Babbitts
‘Cause the banks are gonna fall
Tell ’em the hookah smoking anarchist
Has got you by the balls
Call alice — she’s totally appalled

White men on the radio
Get off on telling you who to hate
And your friend has joined the teabags
And you spend your weekends straight
And your phallushas a Cialis date

When logic and proportion
Have fallen sloppy dead
And the fat cats are aging backwards
While your friends are filled with dread
Remember what the lab rat said
Freeze your head!
Freeze your head !

Let us know your thoughts! Sign up for a Mindplex account now, join our Telegram, or follow us on Twitter

Risk and Precarity Part 3: Possible Solutions. In Conversation with Vinay Gupta

I first learned about Vinay Gupta just about a year ago when Bruce Sterling told me he was in a discussion with a guy who was declaiming about how important MONDO 2000 was and how much he was influenced by it. I looked him up and learned that he had been involved in the launch of Ethereum, and since then has created something else called Mattereum. I was just starting to launching an NFT project called ‘I’m Against NFTs’. I started the work with former MONDO 2000 participants on the project at a time of gold fever for visual and audio NFTs. So I called upon Vinay, among others, to guide me through the fog around bringing NFTs to market.  

As things evolved, the project became a song and an immersive environment with PlayLa.bZ and associates that was presented at MOZFest. The NFT fever abated, and the “I’m Against NFTs” offering was shelved. But I’d grown to treasure my connection to Vinay and to admire his philosophic depth and sharp intelligence regarding blockchain politics and the state of the world in general.

As I was completing my second column here on the topic of Risk and Precarity in Web3, I realized that I had to lean on Vinay’s wit and wisdom for “Risk and Precarity Part 3: Possible Solutions.”  Here I present our conversation about the issues raised by my earlier columns.

Vinay Gupta helped to coordinate the release of the blockchain platform Ethereum, and is the founder and current CEO of Mattereum, which offers legal protections for physical assets sold on the blockchain. He’s clearly had a full life and has done a lot of other amazing stuff, some of which comes up during this conversation.

RU:  I’ve been writing about tech culture’s romance with risk and adventure, and the scams we find in blockchain activities today. When you were helping to start Ethereum, was risk — personal, for other individuals, for the wider economy and culture — part of your calculation?

VG: Firstly, I want to say a huge thank you for your work on MONDO 2000. I was a Scottish teenager living in the crappiest part of a crappy town, before the age of the internet, and one day I was in a board game shop and I saw this glossy, colourful magazine. Picked it up, browsed through the contents, bought one, then another and it literally set the direction of my whole life! I knew I had to get out of Scotland and get to America where it was all happening. I arrived in 1995 and I was not disappointed.

I don’t know that I would have ever made that journey without you. MONDO 2000 was a beacon, a homing signal for me and I am sure many others. Well done. I think you’ve had more impact than you could ever know. Anyway, back to the question of risk.

Before I joined the Ethereum Foundation in 2014, I had spent about ten years as a worst case scenario disaster guy working for government and academia, including stints for a variety of military think-tanks at quite a high level in both America and the UK.

The terrain I worked in was unholy. “I don’t get out of bed for less than 1% mortality” was one of my sayings. In fact 1% mortality wasn’t a thing I ever really paid attention to. My work really kicked in at 10%, 20%, 30% mortality. Genocides, smallpox or worse pandemics including bird flu, nuclear terrorism – that sort of thing. 

We got very, very lucky with Covid. It could easily have been ten times that bad. If it was bird flu it could have been fifty times that bad. I’m not kidding, these are the numbers.

To stay sane during that period I referred to my work as ‘apocalypse mitigation’ because my territory was after prevention has failed, now what? My business cards were designed to set the tone, and were legendary.

Of course climate change was high up my list because a wracking wave of global droughts and famines will also unleash resource wars and accelerate a global cycle of decline. This is why it’s so important we get into geoengineering early.

But nobody wanted to pay for the truth about risk. Discovering the truth about things like inadequate government preparedness for pandemics wasn’t paying the bills. Nobody in government was willing to do the work to fix the problem. As we have seen with Covid.

Eventually I just ran out of money. So I largely focused around my own survival and got a job in tech, with the Ethereum Foundation. Most of my civilian friendly work around the open source hexayurt refugee shelter system is linked from myhopeforthe.world which gives a summary of the approach. I’ll get back to it if I ever succeed in becoming independently wealthy.

So I would say I was one of the most risk-aware people in the world when I joined the Ethereum Foundation in 2014.

A hexayurt quaddome at Burning Man (Credit: R.U. Sirius)

RU: What do you make of the emphasis on anonymity as a protection for individuals as it was emphasized by early crypto money people like David Chaum, the cypherpunks etc.?

VG: David Chaum and the cypherpunks are right. Modern crypto is mostly wrong. I say ‘mostly’ because crypto is littered with fully anonymous actors jealously guarding their True Names. Unfortunately a lot of those anonymous individuals are among the worst scammers in crypto.

But the rest of crypto went down the path of using centralized exchanges. KYC AML CFT PEP SOF* checks and all the rest. [KYC = Know Your Customer; AML = Anti Money Laundering; CFT = Combating Financing of Terrorism; PEP – Politically Exposed Person, SOF = Source of Funds] The problem is that these exchanges have a foot in both worlds: they’re cypherpunk on the side where they’re getting tokens from the raw chaos of the blockchains. They’re TradFi (traditional finance) where they are taking copies of passports and verifying home addresses. As a result, all the legal liability piles up in the exchanges and they also have huge opportunities for operating their own scams: see FTX.

The SEC case against Coinbase is likely to be where a lot of this mess gets sorted out but I am not liking Coinbase’s chances.

RU: So the crypto that you like — the anonymous crypto, uncompromised by TradFi… is it for the masses or is it an elite thing, at least at first? Does it translate into a meaningful means of exchange with which to get, say, food, clothes and housing, and is it a longer wait to get there than TradFi?

VG: Crypto gives the same kind of privacy that everybody had when they made payments before the invention of credit cards: cash. It’s not some magical new thing, it’s just using cryptography to enable computers to maintain our human and civil rights in the face of a changing technological environment.

Cory Doctorow seems to have a serious dislike of anonymous electronic cash, and I don’t understand why. It’s a defense of human rights, nothing more and nothing less.

My guess is that CBDCs (central bank digital currencies) will wind up wrapped in anonymizing layers to protect civil liberties in most jurisdictions: only the most repressive of regimes would force their populations to have all their transactions recorded on a central government ledger! That’s probably how cryptocurrency makes its way into the mainstream economy. That’s how people pay their rent, buy clothing and food, and everything else. CBDCs with privacy layers provided by third parties using cryptography to make private transactions with central bank digital cash.

In this scenario what becomes of Bitcoin? I think the answer is that Bitcoin doesn’t change much. Maybe they migrate to entirely green energy (please!) but other than that I think the honey badger don’t care.

Credit: Tesfu Assefa

RU: With Ethereum and then with Mattereum, you’re working within the current reality of crypto largely connected to TradFi. What are some of the strategies for making the terrain as secure as possible for the average person looking to improve their lot via crypto?

VG: There are a lot of ways to earn money with crypto. Many of them are what I would term ‘zero sum games’ – every dollar gained by one person was lost by somebody else. It’s often like a lottery. There are two major non-zero sum ways to make money with crypto –

The first is people printing their own money rather than having nation states do it for them. Any good anarchist should support this and the libertarians of course do too. If that ‘People’s coin’ turns out to be widely adopted and more people want to trade goods and services for it then its purchasing power increases. Bitcoiners believe in this model above all others.

The second is a little more complex: if it costs 1.4% to pay with VISA, and 0.4% to pay using Polygon, then 1% of the value of the transaction is there to be split between the buyer and the seller. If there are goods on sale and it’s $100 with VISA or $99 with crypto you are going to pay with crypto every single time.

For retail transactions, that’s a relatively small effect. Right now the hidden costs of payment processing are mostly silently borne by the merchants. But there are similar margins being claimed by third parties all the way through the financial system. They implement patterns of trade unchanged since the Age of Sail. Digitizing these archaic trade systems properly – it has to be done right – is going to put a couple of percent on global GDP through sheer efficiency. That’s only the first step, mind you.

RU: How does your more idealistic notion of a circular economy intersect with crypto? And since this is a site for those enthusiastic or curious about AI, how do you see current AI (if we can call it that) being a part of any potential transition?

VG: The second step of trade digitization is AI-based trade optimisation. Right now the world is massively damaged. Waste starves many people of resources: we grow roughly twice the amount of food required to feed the entire world and waste enough to feed billions. That’s just one example: usable electronics rotting in drawers and camping gear that hasn’t been used in years. Cars people no longer drive but cannot be bothered to sell. All of it.

So once trade is mostly-digital and mostly-sensible, then we can start optimizing. Well-documented machine readable descriptions of what things are so that they can be found, valued, bought, sold, recalled and regulated effortlessly – then we can start to restructure the fundamental patterns of trade in a way which is compatible with the survival of the poor and nature itself.

This might sound pretty abstract, but here’s what we’re building at Mattereum. Every significant object in your life – Gore-Tex jacket, camera, laptop, e-bike, couch, airfryer – will have a unique ID either in its electronics or on a tag. There is a blockchain record of those objects – a Wikipedia for items – where every single object has its own page. All the data on that page is machine-readable and legally warrantied. If any of the information is inaccurate, you can make a claim for damages.

The first object to be tagged this way is my camera. It’s not science fiction!

In our model of the future, when you sell an object to somebody else, usually an independent third party will take a look and verify the item’s condition before it is sold. That might be done by a bike shop or a camera shop or it could be a next-door neighbour. It could also be a fine art authenticator working for a Lloyd’s syndicate. It just depends. So goods can be bought and sold many times because you can always check what you are buying online and get reliable trustworthy data and cheap transactions: a global decentralized eBay which acts as a clearinghouse for all the stuff we’re done with and finds a good home for it.

What could that save on our environmental footprint? Probably 20% of all consumer goods manufacturing. It could easily be 50% once society has had a chance to adapt. Note that quality of life goes up: buy what you need, sell it again for almost exactly what you paid for it. Less waste, more of what you want when you want it. It’s like streaming music but for physical things. Not a sharing economy or a renting economy but a hyper-liquid second-hand economy.

AI can help in two different ways. The first is automated identification and condition reporting for physical items. Hold the toy in front of a camera and get an Asset Passport pre-populated with information about that toy line. It makes the whole scheme dramatically less labor-intensive.

The second way is optimizing what people have. Show the AI what you have and it can suggest things that you don’t use and should sell and also figure out things which you might like but do not currently have: a liquidity assistant helping to keep the markets moving. This sounds abstract, but one of our partner companies NeoSwap is using AI to build optimised barter networks so people can swap what they have for what they want even if there are dozens of people who all have to coordinate to make that exchange possible. It’s like magic.

RU: What I see with crypto is that average people see that wealthy people’s money makes money – and they want to do the same. They’re entering Casino Capitalism with high hopes and little data. Are you sympathetic to those who enter this arena purely to get some quick bucks?

VG: Bluntly, if US financial regulators had provided regulatory clarity about tokens ten years ago then we would be in an entirely different universe. Reg CF, Reg D and Reg A all provide regulated frameworks suitable for crowdfunding and other community-based fundraising. The legitimate projects raising funds could adhere to manageable SEC requirements to put their token projects on a secure legal basis, and the Ponzi schemes would have been unable to enter the market and compete against the legitimate projects. But without that regulatory clarity, the innovators were forced into legal gray areas, and it’s been a disaster. We needed more regulation early, not less. All kinds of seedy characters flooded into that gap and it really has been a betrayal of everything that I had hoped to achieve with my work in the Ethereum ecosystem.

Mattereum sat on its hands through not one but two bull markets in crypto and did not issue a token because the legal and regulatory structures were not mature enough to support a token issue on terms that we liked. This year we intend to issue a token on a fully regulated exchange in the European Union, playing by the rules. It should have been like that for everybody.

We’ve just announced a partnership with the Swarm Markets exchange to do things like splitting ownership of real estate into tokens – so you start with something like an industrial building and break the ownership up into thousands of tokens which are bought and sold on a regulated exchange by real estate industry professionals. It can be done for high-value cultural assets like fine art too, Mattereum has been working towards doing this for things like Stradivarius violins as part of a more general conservation strategy for fine instruments. We think the ability to transfer the ownership of heritage assets to tens of thousands of people is a good way of securing their long term future, as long as you can also get the governance right. A 300-year-old violin cannot be handled like an office block!

A lot of people in the blockchain industry have been chasing this vision for years. I would argue in fact that it is the original Ethereum vision from 2014 and 2015 which did not see the blockchain as existing outside of ‘the system’ in some kind of crypto utopia, but foresaw Ethereum as a mainstream part of everyday life particularly in business and commerce. That was always my vision for the future of Ethereum too.

Ethereum: The World Computer

RU: This sounds very TradFi. What about preserving what’s good about the cypherpunk intentions?

VG:  The ultra transparent nature of the blockchain is a great fit for business, but it does not serve the cypherpunk vision of a crypto-anonymous society particularly well at all. In the UK there is intense support for this vision of the blockchain from our judges and legal think tanks, and we feel that is 100% the right way forwards.

The Law Commission in the UK is laying out an agenda for legislation which stands up digital assets not just as a class of regulated financial assets, but as a new class of property: digital stuff you can own rather than just ‘a financial instrument on a new technology platform’. I feel like in time this new legal approach might sort out a lot of the horrible problems we have handling the internet in law: copyright, software licensing, control of personal data like images or click trails, all that might be covered by the same class of legal abstractions. 

But I 100% believe that cypherpunk pirate finance still needs to exist as a hedge against tyranny. That does not mean it has to be the dominant mode of finance using crypto technology. Rather, there should be a diverse environment with self-issued anarchist and libertarian tokens at one end, through to safe-as-houses blue chip regulated bond offerings from major financial institutions and even governments. We can’t afford to throw away either end of the market: everybody needs better transactional technology.

But this ponziconomy stuff is just a disaster. I really wish the whole token boom had happened inside of an equity crowdfunding framework under things like Reg D offerings rather than the mess we have now. And that’s the capability that this new EU-based partnership gives us.

Of course it did not have to be this way. The crypto industry could have established a credit rating agency, some kind of independent project review board, checks-and-balances to protect token buyers from unaudited smart contracts, rug pulls and unstable token designs. But that’s not what happened – a market failure to be studied by economists for the ages – and when you get a market failure that large, of course government steps in.

Credit: Tesfu Assefa

RU: Your ideas for saving the world sound pretty good. Of course, what actually occurs is likely to be messier even with the best intentions and the smartest actors.

But putting that aside, do you see anything in this bag of tricks for the precariat today in terms of immediate (in years not decades) relief? A lot of people feel stretched thin. They’re increasingly hostile to tech solutions, and they’re ready for populist revolutions… which tend to be quite authoritarian — either at inception or eventually.

I don’t even mean the wretched of the earth. Just the ordinary folks, say, in the US or Great Britain.

VG: Well, let’s talk about the wretched of the earth for a second first, then we can get on to the former middle classes. The rhetoric is that things are getting better for them. However as with unemployment statistics and inflation numbers the books are cooked. How do we define poverty? Is it really $1.90 a day? Is it $7.40 a day? It depends who you ask.

These folks are by-and-large seeing a ton of improvement in their lives: access to clean enough water, fertilizer to improve crop yields, gadgets like LED lights which displace kerosene, phones, the internet, all of that is helping. We’re climbing the stairs incrementally.

However at the end of that staircase there’s no landing: there’s a 40-meter drop into the abyss called climate change. Climate change brings drought or flooding, and that brings famine.

A reasonably stable one-acre farmer growing most of their family’s own food can expect slow, incremental quality of life improvements on the current trajectory. Most people agree on this. But then climate change comes and the land becomes unfarmable with crops dying unpredictably in the heat or the drought and suddenly those farms are completely wiped out, just like the dust bowl experience of America in the 1930s.

The poor farmers are the ones that climate change is most likely to kill in enormous numbers. They weigh on my mind constantly.

What can be done for the poor? Prevent climate change!

Now let’s turn our attention to the working class and middle class.

First up, working class and middle class are now the same class. What made the middle class the middle class is that their work could not be done by machines. Now that we have AI here and more AI coming over the horizon, everybody with a job is working class. It’ll take a generation or so for that shift to be felt fully but it is going to change everything. The middle class will rapidly find themselves even more disempowered and disenfranchised. The working class will have a “this is what we were telling you about” attitude to their new brethren. I don’t know what happens to the precariat and the gig workers, but I fear it comes down to: “Are you cheaper than a robot or not?” which is no way for a human to live. But it has been the experience of the industrial workers for centuries, and our lack of sympathy for their plight should be ringing in our ears now.

My writing has improved since I started feeding my copy through an AI system and asking it to edit. Shorter sentences, less commas. I’ve got maybe a million words of my own writing out there for a training data set: how long before the AI trained on my work is a replacement for me in many situations?

I view that as legacy, a way of scaling myself. But it’s also creating my own competitor. How weird does this get in ten years?

As for what is to be done, as the Irish say when asked for directions, “If I was you, I wouldn’t start from here.”

RU: Is there anything in all this that can be acted on now with rapid effect?

VG: Socialism as implemented in poorer societies has a bad habit of turning into genocide. I hate this but it is true. Socialism in affluent societies seems to work pretty well. The Scandinavian model is quite excellent. It secures human decency and avoids the extremely high personal and systemic financial costs of things like homelessness, delayed cancer treatment, untreated mental illness and similar problems which can be very inexpensive to prevent but hugely expensive in their later stages. The American system lets people crash through all the cheap-and-easy-fix stages of problems and right into the life destroying and budget wrecking late stages. This is unacceptable.

And I think that this is actually the way forward for us. There are a lot of questions about “what is the State?” How you answer that question shapes how you imagine the State helping people. I’m quite fond of “a prince is but a stationary bandit” as a general model, but social services are real, and the State does a lot more than steal. It also serves.

RU: OK so do you have a favorite model for what the state should be?

Mariana Mazzucato thinks of the State as being a kind of super-VC making 60-year bets on billion-dollar megaprojects and then reaping the rewards through tax revenue. In particular she points at Silicon Valley as a product of decades of defense spending on semiconductors and other primary technologies, on top of all the WW2-era codebreaking research on computation. Another common model is the idea that the State is there to maintain the rules of the game and ensure fair competition: a model rooted in concepts like antitrust legislation and consumer protection. A third model is that the State is kind of like a superparent. Germans used to call Chancellor Angela Merkel the Bundesmutter (Federal Mother).

I’d like to focus more on the idea of the State as an ‘insurer of last resort’. It has played that function in a truly spectacular way in the financial markets: the 2008 bailout damn near bankrupted entire countries and cost trillions of dollars. It’s probably the root cause of the inflation we are seeing now. “If we’re bailing out corporations, why not people?” runs a common logic. But it’s not the right logic: the bailouts arrive when the situation is at its most expensive to fix. Waiting for people to become homeless before getting them mental health treatment is the worst possible way to do things. We take that approach for everything: medicine by the emergency room, civil order by the gun, and ultimately peace only after war. If the State steps in to make sure that there’s enough money in the system to treat problems at the point where they are cheapest to treat, overall economic efficiency goes way, way up. Get the tooth filled, not crowned. Get the tooth crowned, not pulled. Get the tooth pulled when it’s rotten, not when it’s causing systemic infection. It’s not rocket science.

Same for homelessness and mental health treatment. I really am talking about insurance here, not a generic welfare mandate. I believe it’s so much cheaper to insure risks like major medical risks than to try to pile up enough money to pay: $50,000 for lifetime medical insurance, versus $2 million for a worst-case scenario expensive, rare, treatable illness.

And these systems don’t just operate at the national level. Friendly societies, ROSCAs, and many other structures exist to let people insure-and-invest together. The basic recipe is always the same: everybody pays money into a common pot, and if somebody has a major problem money can be taken back out again to help them. Exactly what the rules are varies, but it’s a kind of mini-institution which creates social solidarity where none previously existed. I’ve read estimates that as many as 40% of American men were members of such structures in the 19th century.

So that’s my suggestion. People who are scrambling for survival should look at the models from the old days, models that worked when life was hard, and update them for modern norms and problems. Pooling regular payments into shared pools which are carefully controlled and audited – or maybe theft-proofed using technology – has enormous creative power. My cryptographer friend Ian Grigg turned me on to the concept of the chama, which is like the bottom-up economic building block of Kenya. I look at that and think there’s basically no place in America which couldn’t use and adopt this model.

We have to rebuild bottom-up social power and I think it is a good idea to start there.

Let us know your thoughts! Sign up for a Mindplex account now, join our Telegram, or follow us on Twitter

Risk and Precarity Part 2: The Age of Web3

Is it the age of the blockchain yet? Web3 enthusiasts claim that the blockchain will lead us to an age of decentralized power in finance and culture. Let’s look at how close we are getting. I will be contemplating the ups and downs of decentralization and its impact on human society. It’s hard to get a solid statistic, but it seems we’re still in the early adopters’ stage, with a small minority of folks around the world using blockchain for bitcoin and NFT activities.

It Starts with the Crypto-Anarchists/Cypherpunks

The foundations for digital cash were established by David Chaum in the early 1980s, but the ideology of cryptography as the great liberator from authoritarian control of finance, communication and just about everything controlled by states and owners didn’t become a culture until the early 1990s. 

Tim May fired off the opening salvo in 1988 with his Crypto-Anarchist Manifesto. In his document May avers that, “Two persons may exchange messages, conduct business, and negotiate electronic contracts without ever knowing the True Name, or legal identity, of the other.” This will be a liberating force, he claims, that will, “be the wire clippers which dismantle the barbed wire around intellectual property.” 

May was an anarcho-capitalist, as were many of those who followed in his footsteps. And while one may be forgiven for wondering if a pro-capitalist groups hostility to intellectual property might be a subject for psychologists, credit these digital freaks with being attuned to the nature of the just-then evolving digitally networked society in which restricting data would be seen as a roadblock to the wonders delivered by freely-flowing information and ideas. 

On the other hand, anarcho-capitalists are not particularly big on making life less risky for the precariat (see Part 1). They are certainly no friend to any form of state-based relief for the vulnerable. There is a broad sweeping ideological narrative in which the complete release of a free market from any controls delivers wonders at such a rapid rate of change that everybody — even the legless homeless moneyless veteran of imperial wars — winds up better off. You see, according to such a narrative, there will be so much wealth flow that volunteerism goes quantum… or something like that. I would give this a hard pass.

In 1992, at a meeting of crypto-anarchists in Berkeley, California, St. Jude Milhon (my former writing partner, RIP) suggested they call themselves Cypherpunks. The name has had staying power. It is now incorporated into many crypto cash brands, but it all started there.

The end-to-end principle — people being able to exchange anything digital directly, without any persons or institutions interceding —was central to the cypherpunk ideal. Encrypted exchange would challenge centralized power and the institutions that use it, i.e. your three letter spy agencies, your taxmen, the copyright lawyers of the entertainment and data industries, your patent holders, and their representatives. Cryptology then was to be another weapon for information being ‘free’. The anonymity it afforded would protect the sharers of data (which would include capital as data) from real world intrusion by those who would block or tax its free exchange. 

As with any and all instantiations of ideology or ideals, the reality of cryptos’ winding road to actuality became more complicated and messy than what the cypherpunks envisioned. Today, all those players, including those that were to be eliminated — the taxman, the lawman, the fiat-money based banker — mill uneasily about in the crypto mix. The reality today is a peculiar mix of the hidden and the wide open. For example, one has to give up more personal information to engage with most crypto exchanges than is required to start a bank account or even to get a passport. The government in all its branches is watching. 

Realities like this make me a little skeptical of the claim that the blockchain will be radically decentralizing. As with the perfect anonymity proposed by crypto-anarchist and cypherpunk visionaries, the result is more turning out to be the usual mix, with all the usual power players dipping their hands in the till.

Credit: Tesfu Assefa

Is Decentralization A Sort-Of Digital White Flight?

Decentralization has long been a fever dream of anarchists left and right, and various flavors of idealists exhausted by the perdition of big states, businesses and political pressure institutions. The realities of decentralization as it is experienced may seem less attractive than the dream. Think of related words and ideas, such as the psychological and social decentering of a person, nation or a culture. Think of the devolution of social welfare guarantees. 

In 1994 a group of digerati, some tied to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), met with the Newt Gingrich oriented Progress and Freedom Foundation (PFF) to discuss their mutual interest in devolving some aspects of the state (mainly social welfare, no doubt). They even issued a statement signed by Esther Dyson, George Gilder, and Alvin Toffler. (Dyson went on to write a cover article about Gingrich for Wired titled ‘Friend and Foe’. This fence-sitting illuminated the distinction between Wired magazine and MONDO 2000.)

At the meta-scale of decentralization, Balkanization is the term that has been used to describe the breakup of large nations into fragments. It has often given rise to tribalized conflicts in places like the former Yugoslavia, where the world witnessed the Bosnian and Kosovo wars. Domination by backwards religious sects and economic confusion can clearly be a result of centralized institutions breaking up. Afghanistan is another of many decentralized disaster stories, albeit helped along by imperial competition between the former Soviet Union and the US and then, later, between Iran and the US. The Kingdom, into the 1970s, was relatively secular and progressive; the imposition of a pro-Soviet government was a mess but still kept the religious fringe from power. The opportunism of Zbigniew Brzezinski helped bring the breakup of the state and, with it, Al-Qaeda and the mess that is the 21st century.

In the US, we only have to think about the use of “states rights” to deny civil rights to black citizens or of the recent Supreme Court decision that gave state governors the privilege of forcing women to give birth (not to mention draconian laws criminalizing medical care).

Dissipative Structure

During the 1980s and ‘90s, there was enthusiasm, particularly among New Age types, for Ilya Prigogine’s dissipative structures theory of self-organizing systems in nature. The then-popular capsule summary, which was fundamentally accurate, was that dissipating systems in nature come back together at a more complex level of coherence. They reach a new equilibrium. This was viewed as a cause for optimism (and relative taoist-style inaction). The usually unasked question was what happens to people in the interregnum — you know… during the ‘dissipating’ part. I share this as an example of how abstract theories presumed to be sampled from natural law get instantiated into activities that may be less than beneficial (thank you social Darwinism.)

Outta Sight! Out Of Mind 

The earlier examples reference decentralization on the scale of nation-states. I am more interested in the notion that the ideology of decentralization might take us away from the solutions to problems that can only be fixed at national or global scales. In other words, forming your well-mannered, mutual aid, ecologically-correct enclave does little or nothing to stop the existential threat of climate change, of nuclear and biological weapons, and does little to protect against pandemics (unless the entire world agrees to stop traveling). Like the idea of “temporary autonomous zones” (TAZ) that was particularly influential in counterculture during the 1990s, there is and was an underlying sense of having given up on big revolutionary or reformist change in favor of Hakim Bey’s party that has more meaning than the entire US government. Bey himself wrote “There is no becoming, no revolution, no struggle, no path; already you’re the monarch of your own skin.” The ‘90s were fairly depoliticized and this made for a happier, less anxious culture but I think it’s inarguable that big trouble is too present now for dropout scenarios. The apocalypse is everywhere. 

Decentralization on a small scale brings another problem: the ‘out of sight – out of mind’ problem. The suffering of others is removed from view and therefore from consciousness. And in a civilization intimately connected not just by technology but by weather and germs, it will come back and bite us all. 

Out-of-sight-out-of-mind is, arguably, reflects in the culture of crypto enthusiasm, and the virtual adventurism and risk-taking of those who play for pay in that realm. A world of hurt doesn’t appear to dim their excitement.

The Scams of the Blockchain

The angelic ideals of networks of trust and security enhanced by crypto have been crowded out of the public imagination by the demons of NFT scams, exchange hacks, and dodgy ICOs.

In 2022 alone, Forkast News reports $2.8 billion was lost to “rug pulls, a relatively new type of cryptocurrency scam.” There are people at the other end of each of those pulls, not to mention on the other end of the billions stolen by Sam Bankman-Fried. The list and amounts stolen are immense, and many of the victims don’t have a comfortable fall back. The Federal Trade Commission tells of, “over 46,000 people reporting losing more than a billion dollars in crypto to scams since the start of 2021.” Many are elderly and lacking sophistication about these activities. 

Still, I’ll keep things in perspective. It’s estimated that the games played by banks, investment firms, real estate hustlers and others cost $22 trillion in 2008 and the beat goes on. I would only say that when people get slimed by a crypto scam it’s more immediate, more visceral, more like an expensive three card monte out in the street. 

Credit: Tesfu Assefa

Risk Isn’t A Board Game

Every attempt to bring novel idealistic technologies into general public use evolves new vulnerabilities. It is usually the precariat — those most vulnerable, most desperate, least likely to have the time, inclination or connections to separate the promising opportunities from the Ponzi schemes and the like who suffer the greatest loss. 

As a culture, we need to be able to continue to value risk-taking. Adventurers test new drugs that might prove useful for psychology or creative problem solving. The Wright Brothers had to test the first airplane. Nothing is going to happen in space if conscious individuals can’t voluntarily risk death. But we have to find a way to provide soft landings for those who are not equipped for a high level of risk and adventure. 

Technoculture, as a trope, has been a place for edgerunners and edgelords, but the risks were never just for themselves. It was always about dragging the entire species (not to mention their wealth) into the spooky and inarguably dangerous new realm of digital space. Tech enthusiasts need to add a new demand to their project: a cushion against the most harmful aspects of this historical dislocation for those falling over the edge.

A follow up column Risk and Precarity Part 3: Possibilities and Solutions will follow. 

Let us know your thoughts! Sign up for a Mindplex account now, join our Telegram, or follow us on Twitter

Risk and Precarity Part 1: The Early Digital Age

“Cyberculture” — the embrace of rising digital technology in the 1990s — was attractive to the hip (a word which, according to some, translates into “knowing”). Avant-gardistes are instinctive lovers of risk, always experimenting with the new; always pushing the broader culture forward while pushing its triggers. 

The culture then was at once kindly and brutal. It promised to inform the masses; to give the average person open access to  the means of communication — taking it away from the monied, well-connected  elites. It touted production technologies that could end scarcity — at the extreme, there was the oft-expressed hope for achieving Drexlerian nanotechnology. This sort of nanotech could, in theory, program matter to make whatever was needed or desired. (They promised me  a self-replicating paradise and all I got was these lousy stain-resistant pants.)  Declarations about scientists having achieved cold fusion for clean energy were known to be dubious, but surely were indicative of breakthroughs to come. 

The hacker ethic, as it was then understood, was all about making everything as free as possible to as many people as possible. Data, at least, was to be free really soon. Unlike physical goods, you can copy and share bits of data and still have it yourself. Over the internet, one could share it with everyone with internet access. There was to be no scarcity in anything that was made from data. In theory, with the kind of advanced nanotechnology advocated by Eric Drexler in his 1986 book The Engines of Creation, you could share data over the internet that would self-create material commodities. Today’s 3D printer is a primitive version of the idea of turning data into material wealth.

On the flip side of all this noblesse oblige was the arrogance of those who ‘got it’ towards those who didn’t. And hidden within the generous democratic or libertarian emphasis of the cultural moments was the contradictory certainty that everyone was going to have to  participate or wind up pretty-well fucked. Stewart Brand, very much at the center of things (as mentioned in earlier columns) wrote, “If you’re not part of the steamroller, you’re part of the road.” Note the brutality of this metaphor. In other words, the force that was promising to liberate everyone from the coercive powers of big government and big money — to decentralize and distribute computing power to the masses contained its own coercive undertow. Brand was saying you would be forced (coerced) into participating with the digital explosion by its inexorable takeover of economies and cultures. 

On its inception in 1993, Wired Magazine shouted that “the Digital Revolution is whipping through our lives like a Bengali typhoon,” another metaphor for disruption that sounded exciting and romantic but is basically an image of extreme material destruction and displacement. In my own The Cyberpunk Handbook, coauthored with (early hacker) St. Jude, we characterized the “cyberpunk” pictured on the cover as having a “derisive sneer.” Much was made of the cyberpunk’s sense of having a kind of power that was opaque to the general public. Hacker culture even had its own spellings for people who were a million times more talented with computers and the online world than the “newbies’   — eleet, or 31337 or *133t. Technolibertarian (and Mondo and Wired contributor/insider) John Perry Barlow whipped out the line about “changing the deck chairs on the Titanic” every time the political or economic mainstream tried to even think about bringing the early chaos under some semblance of control. In 1995, he wrote A Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace, declaiming, “I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.”

Barlow imagined cyberspace as a separate state largely unconnected to the realities of governments and other concerns of the physical world, an idea that seems preposterous now that access to the internet is pretty much a requirement to get work, transfer moneys, and access most medical services. 

Even the mainstream’s shiny young boomer president, Bill Clinton, told people that the average person would have to “change jobs seven times” in the new economy (from burger flipper at McDonalds to Barista at Starbucks to lap dancer and back again). He tried to make it sound like it was all exciting, part of changing times, and he and the more directly cyberculture-oriented VP Al Gore touted retraining as a solution for the displaced (Has retraining been replaced with re-education among the “center-left” politicians of the fading neoliberal consensus? A case can be made.) 

As in all these cases, there was not much thought or sympathy for vulnerable people who might not be in a situation or condition that would allow them to cope with this jazzy and exciting rapidly changing future. Which brings us to…

Credit: Tesfu Assefa

The Precariat  

“We are the 99%.”

Class in America has always tended to be unspoken and, during the pre-digital age, there was a strong, comfortable middle class. My own parents, born in the mid-1920s and right in the middle of the middle, never feared slipping into poverty or homelessness. They bought homes. They rented. The cost wasn’t absurd. They got sick and were kept overnight in hospitals without having their savings wiped out. There was a comfortable sense that there would always be a nine-to-five job available with modest but adequate pay and benefits. And there was an additional sense that the companies or institutions they would work for were solid. Whatever it was, it was likely to remain open, functional and not inclined towards mass firings. They wouldn’t have to “change jobs seven times”as suggested by President Clinton. 

The idea of a class called the “precariat” — a portmanteau of ‘precarious’ and ‘proletariat’ — was popularized by the economist Guy Standing to describe the increasing numbers of people who lack predictable work or financial security. The precariat need extra work (’side hustles’) to bung the gap in their income: gig work, underground economic activity, and extended education or that good ol’ Clintonian ‘retraining’. Members of the precariat mint lines of NFTs hoping they will haul them out of precariousness, or at least give them a temporary lifeline. Ride-sharing businesses can only exist where there is a precariat.

There is an equal or perhaps greater cause for precarity in the state’s hands-off approach towards monopolies, and to what Rebecca Giblin and Cory Doctorow call ‘monopsonies’ (they didn’t originate the word). Wikipedia explains this economic trap as where “a single buyer substantially controls the market as the major purchaser of goods and services offered by many would-be sellers.” Amazon is a world-historic example. The backlash is directed towards digital technology as a whole – rather than just Amazon or some other monopoly company.

Occupy Wall Street & the 99%

Although the people who initiated Occupy Wall Street probably were not using the term back in 2011, their genius was in recognizing that precarity could be as high as 99% of the public – as middle class, upper middle class and even a few wealthy investments crashed, homes went “underwater,” business folded etc. When Occupy started and gained attention, some polls showed that a greater percentage supported than opposed the movement (44% versus 35% according to this Pew Research.) This may not seem impressive but it was a good stat in a land where most people are persuaded that they can achieve “the American dream” with hard work and good luck.

Identity: We Are Not The 99%

Many blame social media for spreading hostility among the public, both in the US and elsewhere. And there can be no doubt that seeing what huge numbers of other people have on their minds is the most irritating thing imaginable. (Cyber-romantics of the 90s rhapsodized the idea of a noosphere — a kind of collectivized global brain. On learning what’s going on in a lot of brains, I would suggest that this idea was, at best, premature. Detourning Sartre for the digital age: Hell is other people’s tweets.) Still, dare I suggest that there was a quantum leap in emphasis on identity divisions and anxieties in the  immediate aftermath of Occupy? Was there, perhaps, a subterranean effort to convince us that we  are decidedly not the 99%? I try to stay away from conspiracy theories but the thought nags at me.

Not Happy To Be Disrupted

As I noted in an earlier column, a lot of people, living in precarity, are not happy to learn about new disruptive technologies. More people, including many who were techno-romantics back in the 90s, now feel more like the road than the steamroller in Stewart Brand’s metaphor. Programmers are now panicking about losing jobs to AI and I hear talk that some in the libertarian bastion of Silicon Valley are opening up to more populist ideas about engaging the state in some form of guaranteed income security.

A follow up column Risk and Precarity Part 2: The Age of Web3 will follow.

Let us know your thoughts! Sign up for a Mindplex account now, join our Telegram, or follow us on Twitter

The Politics of Appropriation and the Active Use of Content-Creating AI

Will AI be used constructively or destructively? It possibly depends on sociological and political factors external to AI or technology. An irruption of barbarism (for example, in the much-ballyhooed upcoming American civil war) would bring destructive uses of AI, mainly fraud and trickery. It’s hard to think of a turn towards empathy doing much good, since it only takes a minority of bad actors to wreak havoc, but one can dream. Between Wall Street traders laughing about screwing middle-class investors out of 401ks back during the financial collapse and bailout of 2008, to the relentless news of corporate predations, manipulative politics, and the plague of more street-level grifters tricking the elderly out of their cash, the evidence is pretty high that the abuse of AI will be front and center in our minds and discussions going into the immediate future. 

But there is one area in which your relationship to AI may be more self-selective: the active versus the passive use of these apps and opportunities for creative work and experimentation. Here we have a richer and more complicated set of relations and possibilities.

Inappropriate Appropriation?

The artist Molly Crabapple recently posted a totalist objection to the use of AI in the arts, writing, “There’s no ethical way to use the major AI image generators. All of them are trained on stolen images, and all of them are built for the purpose of deskilling, disempowering, and replacing real artists”  On reading this I started thinking about how, at Mondo 2000 (the magazine that I co-created), the use of appropriation in creative work was consistently advocated. The main idea, of course, was that you appropriate — use found materials — to make something original, drawing a line between plagiarism and use, although there were exceptions. Our writer Gareth Branwyn amusedly quoted the Austin Texas based Tape Beatles slogan “Plagiarism Saves Time”. Even our ever-provocative Mondo 2000 softened that for our own “appropriation saves time.”

One might compare the incursion of AI for creative use in visual art, writing, music etc. to both the advent of the cassette recorder and the digital synthesizer. We saw the same reactions from musicians and the music industry. With home taping, users of the technology could make copies of recorded music by taping from the radio or a friend’s record collection. The tape itself could then also be copied. In the early ‘80s, the music industry adopted the slogan “Home Taping is Killing Music”, engaged in several lawsuits and lobbied the US Congress (as well as other institutions in Canada and Europe) for legal action to cover their perceived losses from the cassette taping menace. With the advent of the digital synthesizer — the sampler — the floodgates opened to a deluge of conflicts over ownership of music content. Old musicians and their lawyers demanding money from young sampling whippersnappers fuelled the disappointment that GenXers felt about the Baby Boom generation.

For Mondo 2000, Rickey Vincent, author of Funk: The Music, The People and the Rhythm of the One, wrote about the connection between hip-hop, rap, and the cyberpunk aesthetic as enacted by that genre’s playful use of found materials via the technology of the digital sampler: “Sampling is the auditory form of hacking through a database. A certain functional anarchy is involved which one might argue is good for the soul. For hip-hop, a sampler is not a toy. It’s an important instrument in the function of the rap song statement.”

More broadly, in the pages of Mondo 2000, the audio-collage band Negativland, whose use of found material sometimes landed them in lawsuits and hot water, were given the kind of coverage that Rolling Stone would have preserved for Janet Jackson. Our friend and frequent subject, the literary avant-gardiste Kathy Acker, blatantly lifted entire pages out of classic texts, mashing them up with biographical material, fantasy, philosophy and whatever else seemed to work to create her well-regarded (by some) novels. In his Mondo interview with Negativland, Beat historian Stephen Ronan declaimed, “appropriation is the hallmark of postmodernism.” 

Mondo art director Bart Nagel’s playful take on our love affair with appropriation from Issue #10 is too amusing not to share in full:

Some guidelines for appropriation

1. Remember: Appropriation saves time.

2. Appropriate your images from old books and magazines where, chances are, all parties who could make a case against you are dead or failingly old.

3. Unfocus the image slightly to avoid the moiré pattern (in Photoshop try a 0.8 Gaussian blur).

4. Morph, tweak or otherwise alter the image unrecognizably.

5. Don’t alter the image at all; have Italian craftsmen sculpt a simulacrum (not guaranteed to work).

6. Appropriate images from MONDO 2000 – these may already have been appropriated. Let’s confuse the trail. 

7. Appropriate images from ads in RAY GUN and submit them to MONDO — now it’s come full circle — and it’s ecologically sound (recycling is good).

8. It’s hip hop.

9. And finally, this: if you take someone else’s image it’s appropriation, or resonating, or recommodification; if someone takes your image — it’s stealing.

Self-satire aside, the complications over use and reuse are myriad.

Credit: Tesfu Assefa

Culture Uses Culture: News Uses News

In journalism, the hard work of the person who “gets the story” will lead to multiple news items, most of which don’t credit the original source. For those engaged in consequential investigations, it is more important that the information spread accurately than for the originator to be repeatedly credited. Just as songs enter common usage for people to sing or play as they will in daily life, the hard work of the journalist becomes fodder for other news stories, dinner table debates, opinion columns, tantrums on TV or combat at conferences.

All of this is to say that the ownership of one’s content is the blurriest of lines. It certainly keeps our courts busy.

But Does AI Make It All Too Easy?

It’s true using AI for creativity might be different from the sampling we’ve seen so far. Sometimes more becomes different. It’s a matter of degree: the amount of content grabbed by AIs and the degree to which the origins of AI-created content may be obscured makes it, arguably, a different situation. The first cause of concern is that AIs may be good enough — or may get good enough soon — at some types of content creation that the creative people will no longer be required. This is a situation touched on by my previous column about the writers’ strike. AI alienates  human creatives in a way that sampling didn’t, and the concerns about it putting people out of work are being widely expressed — and are legitimate. When it comes to alienating types of labor, one response is some sort of guaranteed income, and a movement towards a sense of purpose around unpaid activities. The identity and self-esteem of the engaged creative is deeply embedded into that social role, and getting paid defines one as a capital A-Artist or capital W-Writer, because otherwise everybody does the same thing you do. 

The artists’ natural affinity and passion for quality work is another source of angst, as covered by my previous article on ‘facsimile culture’. The replacement of quality work with the facsimile of quality strikes many creatives deeply; the war against mediocrity being a great motivator, particularly for alienated young creators finding their footing. 

Back in the day, you couldn’t switch on your sampler or even your synthesizer and tell it “make a recording that sounds just like Public Enemy with Chuck D rapping about Kanye West’s weird fashion sense”, and have it spit out something credible with no intervention from creators/copiers. The AI creation of  “fake” Drake and The Weeknd collaboration freaked some people out — mainly because they suspect that it took less creative effort than a possible actual collaboration between them. But sometimes laziness in music can also produce good results

Finally, and probably most importantly, the degree to which creative AIs are tied into the billionaire and corporate classes validates Crabapple’s broad-brush claim that its primary intended uses are to serve their interests, and to disempower more freelance or democratic or unionized groups of creative workers. The list of large corporations and billionaires engaged in AI development includes Musk, Bezos, Brin, Peter Thiel, Google, Microsoft, Baidu. These persons and organisms are all suspect. The notion that Big Tech wants to deliver us cool tools in a non-exploitive way has lost its luster since the more trusting days of early internet culture. The trend towards unionization increases the likelihood that these companies are acting out of anxiety to get rid of expensive and messy humans, as does the recent spate of layoffs.

For The Individual: The Passive v. Active Uses of AI

Still, there’s room for us to work and play with the tools handed down to us by the corporate monsters. (I type this on a Mac, designed by one of the world’s richest and most litigious corporations.)

Passive uses of AI might include the obvious things we are subjected to like phone-answering bots that declaim “I understand full sentences. What can I help you with?”, to the automated checkouts at supermarkets, to whatever your bank or financial institutions are doing with your money. If you’ve been reading CNET or Buzzfeed and didn’t know that some articles were written by bots, you might, in some sense, feel you’re being used by chatbots. And if you were to use ChatGPT and give it one simple instruction — maybe and ask it to write something for you about the current House of Representatives in the style of Hunter S. Thompson, that would be a passive use of ChatGPT. (The results would also be disappointing. The bot is prevented from getting mean about individuals, even when they deserve it.)

Active users have multiple strategies. With most creative-oriented AIs you can, in a sense, dialogue. You can respond, ask for more, use multiple prompts. The writer and sound engineer Paul Boutin (Wired, NY Times) presented impressive results on Facebook as the result of asking ChatGPT to write a column in the style of the acerbic and critical tech culture magazine Valleywag (now inactive). I asked him what his strategy was for getting more out of that app:

Boutin: “To get ChatGPT to write more like yourself, think about not only your prose style and vocabulary, but what mindset do you bring to your writing? I got it to do a pretty good version of an old Valleywag blog post by instructing it several times over a half dozen drafts: Don’t be even-handed, be unapologetic. Don’t say but convey that you know you’re smarter than the people you’re criticizing, even though they presume the opposite. Don’t hedge — you don’t care what they think or fear repercussions. Be funny, in a sarcastic condescending way. Don’t insult people with names, but express amusement at their foolish actions and words in the specific topic. Also to never say but always convey: Everyone thinks they can do what you do, but they couldn’t no matter how hard they try. They foolishly think they will be able to match your skills with enough prompt engineering.”

“Here’s what ChatGPT gave me on its sixth try:

 AI Authors: The Future of Laziness

Bravo, AI-author enthusiasts! Why work hard on your literary masterpieces when you can let an AI remix internet content? Skip the pesky interviews and firsthand accounts—let’s keep literature artificial and unoriginal. Who needs talent, depth, or hard work when you’ve got an algorithm? Just remember, every time you sip your latté while the AI ‘writes’, you’re celebrating a new era of mediocrity. Cheers to the rise of the machine!”

Bravo Paul and “Chat”

Another strategy for creativity has been long used by creatives engaged in appropriation. A lot of musicians (including David Bowie and Mick Jagger) used William S. Burroughs “cut-up technique” for recombining words to launch a lyric. A fragment of Chatbot text could be deployed in the same manner, to get started, break writer’s block, write a transition, or summing up. 

It could, in fact, be argued that for a truly creative piece of writing built on a skeleton of facts, the facts are the boring part. It might not be a crime against writing to grab your skeleton entirely or almost entirely from a chatbot and flesh it out with your own imagination or insight. In the visual arts, AI might help you rapidly generate alternative samples of a work, varying shading, color, proportions, etc. This is very likely something you already use a machine to do. AI will simply be making the work happen faster. In other words, the active user is engaged in some conscious way with creative AI and doesn’t need to be told what tools to use. 

Risk and Precarity

In an economically, socially, sexually and environmentally anxious moment, the excitability of those inclined towards neophilia (love of the new) brushes up not just against neophobia, but against the very real conditions of our historical moment. Very few of us can dismiss the fears of being displaced, mislabeled, denied or messed about by people and institutions using AI. Technoculture was built on the romance of risk and “disruption”, and, now that the chickens are coming home to roost, culture is not altogether happy to be disrupted. A column about risk and precarity in relation to the culture of technology (which now is, of course, culture itself) beckons sometime soon…

Let us know your thoughts! Sign up for a Mindplex account now, join our Telegram, or follow us on Twitter

Hollywood Writers Strike Versus Facsimile Culture

Since I first made fun of AI panic back in my second column, I’ve been growing more disturbed. But I never thought I’d join the Luddites. However, the striking writers of the entertainment industry are demanding to “Regulate use of material produced using artificial intelligence or similar technologies”. These writers are the first line of resistance against cultural productions being turned into facsimiles of creative brilliance. This has become a point of emphasis among the signs being carried on the picket lines, an indication of its populist appeal. It’s likely that the strike will actually make entertainment bigwigs more attracted to the possibility of ditching the humans for compliant chatbots with no demands and few needs. The fight against AI taking over TV writing is one that should be taken up ‘by viewers like you’ (as PBS likes to say). If you like complex TV shows and films with brilliant dialogue, it’s in your interests to keep the humans and not let the products of their minds be replaced by an AI-created facsimile. 

In The Art World Facsimiles Have Become A Field Of Play in Which Toying with Financial Valuation Serves as a Sort Of Content

In the art world, the distinction between the real thing and a copy of the real thing has been obscured for many years, with a wide variety of consequences. In visual arts, copying became a field of play. The philosopher Walter Benjamin set the terms of the discourse in 1935 with his essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’. Benjamin was dealing with physical objects, and he theorized that an original artwork carried an ‘aura’ that gave it a high capital valuation. In the age of increased reproducibility, Benjamin conjectured that the value or the original would diminish. This hasn’t happened, as originals both old and new fetch huge prices. At least since the Pop Art movement of the 1960s, the art world has toyed with this trope — this predicted tug-of-war between the original and the facsimile, by just saying yes; delivering both originals and multiples. Warhol started mass distributing postcards of his most widely-recognized works in the early 1960s, while the original maintained its ‘aura’ and could be sold to collectors (although it took the pale man’s actual demise for the aura to glow enough to attract really spectacular sums.)

An odd twist comes into play in the land of NFTs. The work is infinitely replicable and can be distributed in moments to billions of internet users, and the NFT-collector may or may not be purchasing exclusive access. What the collector seems to be after is not the aura of the artwork, but the aura of ownership in and of itself – or of a particular relationship to the work.

The Mass Distribution of the Facsimile of Recorded Music 

In the world of recorded music, Neil Young stood out as the loudest early curmudgeon complaining that digitally-created CDs and later music files offer a pallid facsimile of what a recording artist intends. (Of course, it could be argued that recorded music itself is a facsimile of the way music was experienced for millenia prior to its invention, but I’m not going to try to unpack that here. In 1931, The American Federation of Musicians denounced recorded music as, basically, a facsimile of live music that would debase the art.) Over the years, Young’s complaint has become a generally accepted wisdom. We trade quality for the facsimile that is easily distributed and  conveniently available.

My friend ChatGPT agrees: “Digital audio compression works by removing parts of the audio signal that are perceived as less important or less noticeable, in order to reduce the file size and make it more convenient for storage and distribution. However, this process can also result in the loss of subtle nuances and details that contribute to the overall richness and depth of the sound.

“Studies have shown that digital audio compression can result in a loss of dynamic range, which is the difference between the loudest and softest parts of a recording. This can make the music sound less dynamic and less engaging, particularly in genres such as classical music that rely on subtle changes in volume and tone.”

Will the ironies never cease?

Is All Cultural Production A Facsimile of Life?

Taking a sharply anarchic left turn in this exploration, we might take up the view of the European radicals of the 1960s, the Situationists, who viewed all cultural production as contributing to the ‘society of the spectacle’. In his book, ‘Society of the Spectacle’, Guy Debord wrote, “The spectacle is a social relation between people that is mediated by an accumulation of images that serve to alienate us from a genuinely lived life. The image is thus an historical mutation of the form of commodity fetishism.” In other words, all art (from the word artifice or artificial) alienates us from direct experience. Among the practices used by the Situationists, the one most familiar to us today would probably be actions that contemporary people would call pranks. These were actions designed to break the trances citizens going through their normal routines. The Situationists called this tactic ‘construction’, and it involved created situations that would disrupt the status quo and encourage spontaneous excitement, joy or, for that matter, anxiety.

Situationism pretty much abandons mediation completely for intensely lived daily lives, what Situationist Raoul Vaneigem called ‘the revolution of everyday life’.

An eruption of this sort of consciousness would pretty much put the striking writers out to pasture. But this is not our world today.

The boss needs you, you don’t need him! (Credit: Wikimedia)

Remember When Youtube Was Going To Wipe Out Professional Television Production?

Aside from AI creativity — or possibly in combination with it — another specter looming up to challenge TV writers is the democratization of video production. This was, first of all, the dream of avant-gardists like Nam June Paik: that everyone could be a video artist. That it would become a medium of creative self-expression and break up the confining linearity of storytelling. And,  back in the earlier years of this century, Wired magazine related pundits like Kevin Kelly and Chris Anderson predicted that the “long tail” of small scale content creators (video in particular) would create niche audiences that would seriously impact and begin to replace the big movie and television productions. This doesn’t appear to have happened, although it could be that TikTok is grabbing them while they’re young and a generation will emerge that prefer 30-second clips of someone having their cat speak in a funny voice to the complex plots and dialogues of shows like ‘Succession’ or ‘Atlanta’. 

Maybe Our Lives Are A Facsimile

Finally we come to Simulation Theory, that favorite 21st century cosmology that our very lives themselves may be, in a sense, a facsimile, a mediated creation… a computer simulation. In this case, we may as well carry on by emphasizing that which gives us pleasure – at least until we find a way to bust out of The Matrix without switching off our facsimile universe. Like Pinnochio and Zuckerberg, we all long to be real boys (or others).

What Is To Be Done?

I’ve seen mixed results from attempts to get Chatbots to achieve authentic creative madness. So I think we should place our bets on a proven winner. That would be the screenwriters who have managed to send some wonders to our screens in this century, from the aforementioned ‘Succession’ and ‘Atlanta’ to ‘Fleabag’, ‘Black Mirror’, ‘Mad Men’, ‘Fargo’… the list of well-written shows goes on. (I won’t mention the unfunny comedy writing of ‘SNL’ or ‘The Daily Show’. Nope. Won’t mention it.) 

I mean, assuming there won’t be a revolution in everyday life in which we achieve some kind of unmediated intensely experienced existence, I suggest we try to keep these writer-freaks employed, well-paid and supplying us with cool content. (Why do I imagine that a Situationist revolution of unmediated intensely experienced existence could end up being as exhausting as having to work all the time?  It’s a bit like being asked to constantly engage in leisure activity as a participant when sometimes you just want to kick back and watch a good TV show. Sometimes we choose slack over engagement.) Speaking of which, after completing the first draft of this piece, it was announced that Facebook’s ‘Metaverse’ had failed and was being shut down. It’s unclear whether the failed attempt to bring VR to Facebooks 3 billion users represents a rejection of VR as a participatory medium that some, as far back as the early 1990s, thought would replace TV, or if the technology is still too raw for people to want to climb in, or whether Facebook’s particular attempt was somehow flawed.

In any case, we should support our striking writers lest the profiteers of television decide that they could fill the air with cheap reality programming, some of it possibly featuring dumb AIs and even dumber humans engaged in banal contests, and that they don’t need any pesky humans, even if the award-winning smart shows disappear. After all, reality TV gets a big viewership and is extremely profitable. I fear this may be the ultimate result of the great battle of the Hollywood writers against the entertainment machines.

Let us know your thoughts! Sign up for a Mindplex account now, join our Telegram, or follow us on Twitter

Steal This Singularity Part One: The Yippies Started The Digital Revolution

Every fourth one of these Mindplex articles will be an annotated and edited excerpt from my multipart piece titled Steal This Singularity, originally written some time in 2008. This will continue until I get to the end of the piece or the Singularity comes. Annotation is in gray italics.

Part One: Steal This Singularity

1: The notion that the current and future extreme technological society should not be dominated by Big Capital, Authoritarian States or the combination thereof. Also related, a play on the title of a book by 1960s counterculture radical Abbie Hoffman. Abbie may be an obscure figure to today’s young people. Let’s start to fix that here.

2: The notion that in our robotized future, human beings shouldn’t behave robotically. The response to AI isn’t to blow up or hack down AIs. Become so unique and original that no program, however sophisticated, can perform you. Let AI thrive. You have less clichéd paths to follow!  

 A few years ago, I proposed Big Dada as a response to Big Data. Big Data is the corporate/state/organization tool for exploitation and control, and/or for making effective policy for human benefit. (Life’s rich in ambiguity.)

With Big Dada, I suggested confusing the data by liking what you hate; hating what you like; by lying; by engaging serious issues with surrealistic gestures and language and by generally fucking with data’s logic circuits. I didn’t suspect at that time that a power-hungry, orange-faced, grifter-trickster reality show host would capture Big Dada in a sort of chaos-fascism. Clearly, there were bigger, richer Big Dadas to contend with. Who knew?   

The well-rounded posthuman — if any — should be able to wail like a banshee, dance like James Brown, party like Dionysus, revolt like Joan of Arc and illuminate the irrational like Salvador Dalí. Sadly, the ones that aren’t mythological are dead, so a smart-ass immortalist might argue that even being able to wag a finger would be an improvement over the passions or mobility of these three losers. 

3: The title for a website in which R.U. Sirius says and does as he pleases. As it turned out, it pleased me to not do much with that website.  

The Singularity is, of course, conceived of as the time at which the artificial intelligences that we create become smarter than us. And then it makes itself even smarter and smarter still and yet smarter again and so forth… at an ever-accelerating pace until it becomes incomprehensibly something other to our wormy little minds.

I have to be honest. I’m not sure how seriously to take this. But ‘Steal This Singularity’ has much more of a ring to it than ‘Steal This Future’ or ‘Steal This Transhumanity’. Good sloganeering is intellectually disreputable… but fun. Plus anything that can fit on a T-shirt can be sold. My friend Timothy Leary used to advocate for getting your philosophy down to a bumper sticker. Tim was disreputable… but fun. And the way I see it, The Singularity has become a buzzword for the rad techno-future brought on by NBIC (Nano-Bio-Info-Cogno) or GNR (Genetics, Nanotech, and Robotics) or — to put it in more populist terms, the coming of the machine overlords.

Look, for example, at Singularity University SU had just been established when I wrote this. Here we have the establishment Singularitarians, all hooked up with NASA and Google and Cisco and Genentech. And how seriously did they take the Singularity label? Well, when Alex Lightman and I interviewed founder Peter Diamandis for h+, he made it clear that they were using the word for the same reason that I was: COOL BUZZWORD! That… and to make Ray Kurzweil happy. Ok. He didn’t blatantly say “cool-ass buzzword, dude!” He said: “to be clear, the university is not about The Singularity. It’s about the exponentially growing technologies and their effect on humanity… You know, we toyed with other terms… like Convergence University and others. But in homage to Ray…” Why do I suspect investment capital was involved?

So, in equivalent homage to SU, I call this project ‘Steal This Singularity’ and admit straight out that it may or may not have jackshit to do with ‘The Singularity’, depending on accidents, random moods and possible funding.The question, then, may be asked, smarter-than-human AIs aside, does ‘Steal This Singularity’ presume the rather technotopian possibilities promised by transhumanism, but believe that it will be necessary to STEAL it from the so-called 1%? Is that what I’m up to here? Well, maybe. How does one steal a Singularity (or something like it) from corporate ownership? I think this is a serious question. It’s almost certain that, barring a revolution, the digital other-life will be privately owned (In case of a revolution, it will probably be controlled by the vanguard state… and then, eventually, also privately owned). If, for example, humans can upload themselves into data-based quasi-immortality, it will be owned and the options will be more locked in than North Korea on a bad day. And one fine day, the powers that be or some nasty 12-year-old hacker will drag you into the garbage icon. (Yes, the garbage icon is eternal.) OK, fun’s fun but let’s get back to the real, old school fun, i.e. the Yippies.

Part Two: The Yippies Started The Digital Revolution

In 1971, a revolutionary prankster/celebrity named Abbie Hoffman, who had started the radical group the Yippies (Youth International Party) released STEAL THIS BOOK, a manual for living on the fringes of a wealthy society by grabbing up some free shit from corporate powers while committing some Blows Against the Empire (another influence on this project, btw). 

Credit: Tesfu Assefa

See, 1971 was the last year that the vanguard of the counterculture thought that they were going to make a total cultural and political psychedelic/anarchistic/left wing revolution before realizing… fuck it. Let’s campaign for McGovern. But more to my point here and the milieu it attempts … true story… the Yippies started the phreakin’ digital revolution! To wit: The hacker culture started as the phone phreak culture. The phone phreak culture came out of the Steal This Book attitude about getting free stuff from the detritus of corporate culture, in this case, the phone company. I wonder how shoplifting and other forms of gutter-freak theft plays today among some leftists – the ones who seem to have become “inlaws in the eyes of Amerika” (Jefferson Airplane reference)… inclined towards lawful good behavior and even occasional pompous respect for American institutions. This must have emerged in reaction to a lawless lunatic right that has taken a much more visible and colorful role in the zeitgeist. There’s some extreme code-switching when it comes to the romance of insurrection (Yippies, for example, dug the Weather Underground… which, in those days, wasn’t a website for following weather conditions). And QAnon Shaman – with his war paint and animal howls – seems like someone who would only have been at home in a Yippie! prank back in ’71. There’s so much more I could say about code-switching. Maybe some other column. The first legendary phone phreak, John Draper aka Captain Crunch, who built the blue boxes, used to hang out at 9 Bleeker Street, NYC, Yippie headquarters. The first magazine that focused primarily on phone phreaking was YIPL (Youth International Party Line), which was started by Hoffman and “Al Bell.” In 1973, it transmorgified into TAP, which is more broadly remembered as the initiatory phone phreak periodical.

Phone phreaks were computer hackers. Draper famously noted that the phone system “is a computer.” From this milieu, the personal computer arose. Famously, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak funded the birth of Apple by selling Blue Boxes for phone phreaking.

Another Yippie contribution is the use of McLuhanism as a weapon in the countercultural revolution. Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and the other original YIPs took an idealistic youthful new left that was sort of basic and organic, and a mirror of the folk music that they loved, and made it “go electric” (a term used for when Bob Dylan started using rock ’n’ roll to communicate his increasingly surrealistic cultural critique.) That the medium is the message was central to their strategy for an anarchic left-wing sex, drugs & rock ’n’ roll youth revolution. Hoffman’s 1969 book ‘Revolution For the Hell of It’ is saturated with McLuhan references and strategies for how a freak left could take over America, end war and racism. and bring about a post-work celebratory psychedelic utopia. ‘Do It!’ yippie prankster/leader Jerry Rubin’s 1969 book was ‘zapped’ (i.e. designed) by Quentin Fiore, the same force behind ‘The Medium is the Massage’, McLuhan’s most successful incursion into the popular mind. The YIPs had faith that, being native to television and rock ’n’ roll radio, they had an intuitive understanding of the era that outmatched the dinosaurs of the establishment. They could bring the already rebellious rock ’n’ roll media babies into their utopian revolution.

As things evolved (or devolved), young people did become increasingly rebellious, and even riotous. The counterculture drifted from the intellectual class in the leading colleges out into the broader youth culture, and the emblem of rebellion shifted from Jane Fonda’s progressive activism to Peter Fonda giving the world the finger in ‘Easy Rider’. I bet some of those tangled up in this inchoate rebellion reemerged in 2020, in the Capitol Building on January 6 as hairy old dudes being disrespectful to Nancy Pelosi’s desk.

McLuhan wrote, “The global village absolutely ensures maximal disagreement on all points.” Wow! Sure seems to have called modern digital culture! This can be traced to the hippie/yippie reframing and idealization of mediated pop cultural hipness, and then on through Stewart Brand, who became obsessed with the idea that a picture of the whole earth would create a shift in human consciousness that would have us identify as citizens of earth (the global village) rather than members of a tribe or nation. Brand, with his Whole Earth Catalogs in tow, went on to become, arguably, the central figure of the emerging digital revolution in the late 1980s, sponsoring the first hackers’ conference, the first intellectual (maybe the last) social media site — a bbs called The Well — and helping create ‘Wired’ magazine, which idealized accelerated change as a world-improving hip cultural and business revolution. This may seem like a long distance from the Yippies’ original intentions — although it may be that where we landed was inevitable, the view of the essay ‘The California Ideology’ by Andy Cameron and Richard Barbook in 1995.

Indeed, the rise of the computer-enthusiastic hacker movement of the 1980s, which was made up pretty much entirely of counterculture enthusiasts, was well-timed to the Reaganite agenda for setting the entrepreneurial impulse free from regulation. It was these two forces in tandem that made the digital revolution happen. But I’m trying to cover too much ground in one column – a rant for another time. 

Read the follow up article Steal This Singularity Part 2: The More Things Change, The More You’ll Need To Save 

Let us know your thoughts! Sign up for a Mindplex account now, join our Telegram, or follow us on Twitter

Accelerating to Nowhere

Accelerating To Nowhere

In an excellent conversation right here on Mindplex, Cory Doctorow went on a bit of a rant about how there were more changes over the 20th century leading up to the digital revolution than in this virtualized century. It’s worth sharing most of it: “mid century America, from post-war to 1980, is probably the most dynamic era in industrial history. In terms of total ground covered, we’re talking about a period that went from literal horse drawn carriages as a standard mode of transportation for a significant fraction of Americans to rocket ships… the number of changes you had to absorb from cradle to grave over that period are far more significant than the ones we’ve had now… someone born, like me, in 1971, has had to deal with computers getting faster and more ubiquitous, but not the invention of computers per se…. not the invention of telecommunications per se…”

Accelerationists, check under the pedal. It may be bricked. (ed: R.U. Sirius uses the term accelerationist to mean those wishing to intensify technological change and not specifically to the neoreactionary use of the term.)

Accelerating Into Digital Delirium

The point is well taken.

I would only counter that, in a sense, Cory is comparing oranges to apples (or Apples, if you prefer). The 21st century is seeing a particular type of extreme acceleration: an acceleration out of physicality into nonphysical virtual space. And as the result of a number of factors, not least of which are already distorted economic and political cultures — this appears to be an acceleration towards something of a mass psychotic break with reality. From people shooting a lot of people at once as a lifestyle choice (over the last few days, shooting anyone that unexpectedly enters your personal space has become trendy), to the predations of the followers of the cult of QAnon, the evidence is all around us, particularly in the hypermediated hot zone that is the USA.

On Twitter, Chris Stein reports on an example of this confusion: “Today I saw a guy with two hundred and eighty thousand followers promoting a story about McDonald’s in the UK serving dead babies and there were numerous comments that were like ‘yeah! Criminal! We are outraged! This is bad’” A few days ago Vice reported that “someone is selling computer generated swatting services.” Automated terror as an amusement for some young males. The very fact that swatting seems like a fun game to some young people is one of the myriad examples of the degree to which people today are buffered from physicality by mediation… divorced from the consequences of their actions. Taken alone, these examples may not strike the reader as being as impactful as, say, the twentieth century killing fields of Cambodia. But I would aver that the plague of bad weird actions caused by digital interference in our ability to separate reality from virtuality are the first signs of a fast spreading mass delirium.

In a 1991 MONDO 2000 interview, the late avant-garde novelist Kathy Acker said: “When reality—the meanings associated with reality—is up for grabs, then the body itself becomes the only thing you can return to.” Today, virtuality assaults that body as if it were its most potent appendage.

A Kind Of Social Singularity

Vernor Vinge’s original concept of the Singularity suggested that we can’t understand or predict who (or what) we will be, or what life — our societies, psychologies, politics, technologies etc. — will be beyond the point when we develop smarter-than-human AIs. It would, according to Vinge, all be a kind of unimaginable blank slate. My less extravagant thought is that we have induced a kind of Social Singularity when we herded billions of humans onto the net.

Giving everyone access to the means of global communication both as communicator and receiver has shattered consensus realities into individual and small-group reality tunnels. From this point on, we can no longer comprehend or predict what the cognitive and sociopolitical results will be. Of course, unlike in Vinge’s Singularity, this Social Singularity doesn’t replace humans as the main actors in our history.

On The Other Hand

I’ll confess that I may be going a bit overboard in saying that a Social Singularity can be caused by just the presence of billions of people on the internet. At the end of the ‘90s, I was already saying it was impossible to get people to focus on the same narrative. Then 9/11 happened. One event decidedly brought people into the same narrative and, it must be said, a harmful consensus was generated that led to the Patriot Act, the American torture gulags and the preposterous invasion of Iraq. There are good things and bad things about smashing consensus reality.

Perhaps climate breakdown could refocus us on a common narrative, but there are greater financial interests in sowing confusion about blame and solutions there than there was after 9/11 (although the Iraq invasion was a money spinner for companies owned by friends and even members of the George W. Bush administration).

Money For Nothing & Your Clicks For Free

In his essay ‘Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit’, the anarchist writer and philosopher David Graeber wrote about how the end of bipolar competition between the US and the USSR might have been instrumental in changing the priorities of the US. Specifically, we backed off the Space Race – but we abandoned most other big physical/material projects too. (The culture theorist Arthur Kroker referred to the period after the fall of the Soviet Bloc as “the recline of Western Civilization”). Graeber wrote “Where… are the flying cars? Where are the force fields, tractor beams, teleportation pods, antigravity sleds, tricorders, immortality drugs, colonies on Mars, and all the other technological wonders any child growing up in the mid-to-late twentieth century assumed would exist by now? Even those inventions that seemed ready to emerge—like cloning or cryogenics.” Graeber goes on to note that we’re in “a technological environment in which the only breakthroughs were those that made it easier to create, transfer, and rearrange virtual projections of things that either already existed, or, we came to realize, never would.”

digital wasteland

Graeber points out that social analysts identified the Space Race as key to the 20th century public’s exaggerated expectations of transformative technological magic. But Graeber goes further than that. He writes that the Soviet Union constituted a greater challenge to American technological superiority than is usually recognized. Graeber: “There was the awesome space race, alongside frenetic efforts by U.S. industrial planners to apply existing technologies to consumer purposes, to create an optimistic sense of burgeoning prosperity and guaranteed progress that would undercut the appeal of working-class politics.

“These moves were reactions to initiatives from the Soviet Union. But this part of the history is difficult for Americans to remember, because at the end of the Cold War, the popular image of the Soviet Union switched from terrifyingly bold rival to pathetic basket case—the exemplar of a society that could not work. Back in the fifties, in fact, many United States planners suspected the Soviet system worked better. Certainly, they recalled the fact that in the thirties, while the United States had been mired in depression, the Soviet Union had maintained almost unprecedented economic growth rates of 10 percent to 12 percent a year.”

Graeber’s piece does not claim the end of the Cold War was the sole reason (or even the most important reason) for the retreat from making stuff — real material stuff that might have transformed our lives. It’s just an element of the essay that has stuck in my mind ever since I read it about a decade ago.

Still, it seems that the fall of the Soviet Bloc and, with it, the final closure of any sense that there was a competition for bragging rights, was perfectly timed for a lot of capital to abandon the physical and relocate in cyberspace, resulting in what has been — in terms of real material productivity — largely a massive circlejerk. IDC FutureScape and Business Wire recently reported that by 2022, reported that “more than half the global economy will be based on or influenced by digital.”

That “giant sucking sound” Ross Perot thought was going to come from Mexico and Canada is the sound of all the investment of time, energy, imagination and creativity being sucked into virtuality. When we think of the massive amounts of capital that have flowed in and out of the monsters of online life like Facebook, TikTok,YouTube, etcetera, we understand that it has produced sound and fury signifying nothing, certainly not many improvements that justify this mass shift in priorities.

Era of the Techno Medicis

Today the US space program has been largely removed from the political agenda, and has been privatized along with many other hoped-for big projects out here in the material world. These hopes are now the playthings of billionaires, something they can do with their excess. For some undeterred utopians, these projects justify concentration of capital in a few hands — a concentration that only someone who’d been fed decades of free market propaganda could palate. These projects assuage the egos of the very few while alienating most people from any techno-progressive dreams. The excitement about technology that was so ubiquitous in the 1990s, and even at the start of this century, has turned almost entirely bitter.

Return To the Hacker Sharing Ethic

In the 1990s and earlier in this century, there was much talk of a ‘digital divide’. Divides still exist. There are cases in which, to do their schoolwork, poor kids will work sitting outside some institution that has WiFi. But, for the most part, everybody is, at least, online. The new digital divide might be between the people who are still techno-optimists and the people who see only over-privileged tech bros. It’s an emotional and attitudinal divide. I’m disinclined towards seeing any solution, although the early sensibility of hacker culture that was largely based on sharing and mutualism still has the hearts and minds of many of the brightest tech workers. I think we should direct whatever hope, energy and support we can muster toward that.

Let us know your thoughts! Sign up for a Mindplex account now, join our Telegram, or follow us on Twitter